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Woods returns to Masters after scandal

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Tiger Woods arrived without warning on a lazy Sunday afternoon at Augusta National, as quiet as it will get for him the rest of the week at the Masters.

For a while, it looked as though nothing had changed.

He greeted two reporters whom he had not seen in five months with a playful jab. When he strolled onto the new practice range, no one stopped what they were doing. He chatted with Paul Casey before hitting balls, Jim Furyk when he was done. But when he was looking for a game and ran into Mark O’Meara, the enormity of the week began to sink in.

They have never shared such a long embrace before playing nine practice holes.

‘‘I haven’t seen him since July,’’ said O’Meara, whom Woods once leaned on as a 20-year-old rookie trying to find his way.

‘‘Listen, I love the kid. I understand what happened and it’s not a good thing that has happened,’’ O’Meara said. ‘‘It doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s my friend and I care for him. It’s like I told him out there, ’This is the place where you belong. This is what you love to do.’ And he does. He loves to compete and play. So it’s good to have him back.

‘‘The game needs him back, and it’s good for him to be back.’’

Woods has not been seen in public, except for a televised apology, since his middle-of-the-night car accident Nov. 27 that set off explosive revelations of a sordid life hardly anyone knew existed. More than a four-time Masters champion and the No. 1 player in golf, he now is famous worldwide for a sex scandal that made him a regular in tabloids.

Woods played the back nine, then met with Masters chairman Billy Payne before leaving the club.

It all changes when he returns.

The gates open at 8 a.m., sending some 30,000 people onto the grounds at Augusta National. For Woods, the toughest part of the week might be at 2 p.m. Monday when he holds his first press conference.

Interest is so high that the club has limited seating to one reporter for each news outlet, with only a few exceptions.

‘‘He’ll figure it out,’’ O’Meara said. ‘‘He’s pretty tough.’’

O’Meara was surprised to see Woods on Sunday at the Masters, and he wasn’t alone. There was no commotion on the range when he arrived, and Casey was stunned to see Woods standing behind him.

‘‘It’s where I’m used to seeing him,’’ Casey said, choosing to keep their conversation private. ‘‘All of a sudden he appeared behind me. He was all business as usual — hit 10 balls and go play.’’

Most of the players have not seen him since he won the Australian Masters on Nov. 15, or played in Shanghai the week before. Furyk had not seen him since they celebrated a Presidents Cup victory on Oct. 11.

‘‘He’s probably here a little earlier than normal,’’ Furyk said. ‘‘I’ve never seen him here on a Sunday. Generally, it’s nice to have him back and I can’t wait until he’s out here and I don’t have to answer any more questions about him.’’

Sunday at Augusta National is unlike any other at a major. The course is closed except to employees, media and members. It is the only major where club members can play alongside the best in the world, and past champions are allowed to bring a guest.

‘‘You don’t normally get George Lopez playing on the Sunday before the Masters,’’ Casey said.

Lopez, one of several comedians who have lampooned Woods in recent months, was three stations down from him on the range. Lopez was playing Sunday with Mike Weir, who won the Masters in a playoff in 2003.

Reporters and photographers are not allowed on the golf course, and it wasn’t long before Woods vanished down the steep hill of the 10th fairway and toward Amen Corner at the far reaches of Augusta National. It was warm and bright, and it was rare to see Woods hitting balls with sunglasses on.

Woods has created a huge void of information by being in seclusion and in therapy from the accident until he spoke to family and friends Feb. 19 at PGA Tour headquarters in Florida.

There will be awkward times for many. Woods was friendly with plenty of players, but not terribly close with any of his peers. He has beaten them routinely over the years while piling up 82 victories worldwide and 14 majors.

Now, it’s time to get introduced to a Woods no one knew.

He has been linked to more than a dozen women, although he has confessed to cheating only on his wife. ‘‘I have made you question who I am and how I could have done the things I did,’’ Woods said in his 13 1/2-minute statement at Sawgrass on Feb. 19.

As for his golf? Stay tuned.

‘‘He hit the ball pretty good today,’’ O’Meara said. ‘‘He’s been practicing the last three or four weeks. He’s good to go. It’s going to be a different thing for him. But if anyone can handle it, he can.’’

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