AUGUSTA, Ga., April 7, 2010 — -- Mere whispers that Tiger Woods would play in the informal par-3 contest here sent the press corps scurrying to their laptops, phones and Twitter accounts.
The Masters printed out a list of "eligible players," Woods among them, and handed it out to journalists here. The Golf channel reported on air that he would play. ESPN's Jason Sobel tweeted that he wouldn't.
In the end Woods was a no-show. Golf's number-one personality would in fact not play in the par-3 contest, said his publicist.
But the near-miss, and the chance to see Woods compete for the first time since his life began to unravel after his Nov. 27 car crash, showed what a hold Woods still has over the game.
The hundreds of reporters here pored over Woods' wardrobe: grey shirt on Monday, canary yellow shirt Tuesday, purple shirt Wednesday (all of them Nike, of course.) An Associated Press photographer said his agency had moved more than 80 photos from the Masters on Tuesday – and only two did not feature Tiger Woods.
A large part of Masters chairman Billy Payne's pre-tournament press conference was spent heaping praise, and then criticism, on Woods. "It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here; it is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids."
Payne added: "Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children."
After placing Woods in the pantheon of golf greats -- alongside Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus -- Payne wondered openly whether Woods would be able to rehabilitate his image, saying, "Certainly, his future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change."
For his part, Woods, in his first unscripted and unrestricted interview in five months, signaled that is what he hopes to do -- change. He said he'd "be more respectful of the game and acknowledge the fans like I did today. That was just an incredible reception today for all 18 holes, and show my appreciation for them."
Tiger Woods: Crowds Swoon to See Him
Woods had this crowd at hello. Over the past three days, under a sizzling sun, fans packed in the galleries 10-15 deep, all for a chance to see the master return. Forming a pageant of pastels, they veritably swooned at the sight of Tiger Woods 2.0. They cried, "Welcome back, Tiger," and when he tipped his hat in reply, or called back, "Thank you," they seemed to swoon again.
Fans today told ABC News they were stunned by the number of autographs he signed, by his friendly banter, and apparent willingness to please.
And then there's what one fan, David Graves, called the "mystery factor." "He's the best in the world. But there's so much mystery surrounding his comeback. You don't know whether he'll be rusty, you don't know what his mental situation will be."
Much of that mystery will unravel as Woods tees off Thursday afternoon, in what will arguably be the most highly anticipated tee shot in golf's 500-year history.