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Golf Tidbits: Inside the ropes, Tiger hasn't changed much

Kevin Currie, Golf Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - As you might have noticed, Tiger Woods returned to action Thursday at The Masters.

For Woods, it was the end of a self-imposed "indefinite break" that started soon after his Thanksgiving weekend car accident, which was followed by the subsequent firestorm that has severely damaged his marriage and public image.

Woods had to be relieved to get back inside the ropes, and back in the game. It had been 145 days since he last struck a golf shot in competition.

Through his round, there were little-to-no negative outbursts in the crowd.

"Absolutely not," Woods bluntly stated when asked if he heard any negative comments during the round.

However, he couldn't completely escape torment about the infidelities that were outed during his leave from the game. While Woods was on the driving range, a plane circled the Augusta National carrying a banner that stated, "Tiger did you mean Bootyism?"

The reference was to Tiger's affairs outside of his marriage, and his recent vow to get back to his roots of Buddhism.

On the course, the questions lingered. Can Woods compete after such a long break? Absolutely. Can he win this week? We'll find out in a few days, but he is off to a solid start.

For those expecting a miracle round out of Woods, they nearly witnessed what they had hoped for. He mixed in three birdies, two eagles and three bogeys through his opening 68 at Augusta National. It was the first time in his career that he was able to break 70 in the opening round at The Masters.

"A little bit [surprised] yeah," Woods said of his round. "But the course could be had today."

Woods' last truly spectacular opening round was in 1997, the year he collected his first green jacket. He kick-started his record-breaking win with a four- over 40 on the front nine. Woods came back with a six-under 30 and was off to the races en route to a 12-shot win with a tournament record score of 270.

Playing first in his group on Thursday, Woods received a warm reception from the patrons, as they are called at Augusta, prior to his opening tee shot. And where exactly did that tee shot land? Where else but the fairway.

As he promised in recent media sessions, Woods has been more receptive to the fans than in recent years. Not only did he flash a few smiles during his round, but he also tipped his cap to acknowledge the warm receptions from patrons on different holes.

That seems minute for most, but Woods' reserved style usually had him just grab the tip of his hat with two fingers and feign a tip of his cap. During his opening round, Woods removed his hat more than once to recognize the applause from the galleries.

"Felt good, felt really good. I was able to get into the rhythm and go about my business," he stated. "It was an unbelievable reception from the crowds all day, and it helped keep my spirits up since I missed a lot of putts."

Earlier in the week, Woods was pictured signing autographs for fans. I don't remember the last time I saw that out of Woods. That is another change he has committed to making.

I'd love to see Woods on the course more often this summer. After watching his first round, it is apparent Woods can get his golf game in shape rather quickly. He prepared for The Masters with about one month's worth of practice.

The change to Woods inside the ropes has been subtle, the change Woods makes outside the ropes is what most will scrutinize in the coming months and years.

OCHOA LOSING HER GRIP ATOP WORLD RANKINGS

A few years back, Annika Sorenstam was dominating women's golf. Then she got married for a second time, and talked frequently about starting a family.

Many dismissed the idea as mere talk and said she wouldn't quit the game so soon. But, that is exactly what Sorenstam did. She retired at the end of the 2008 season and hasn't been back since giving birth to her daughter in September.

We could be seeing a similar change in Lorena Ochoa. The Mexican star married for the first time over the winter, and is now stepmother to three children.

Ochoa also would like to have kids of her own, so there is no telling how much longer we will see her on the course.

And it is on the course that Ochoa better be looking in the rear view mirror. Over the last 19 months, her lead atop the women's world rankings has plummeted from 8.55 average points over Sorenstam on Sept. 29, 2008, to just 0.55 average points over Yani Tseng in this week's rankings.

It is not like Ochoa has been playing terrible golf -- she hasn't missed a cut since the 2005 season and won three times last year -- it's just that she hasn't been ending on the first page of the leaderboard as often of late.

She has one top-five finish this year and one other top-20 in four starts after ending the '09 season with six top-six finishes in her last seven events.

Tseng, Jiyai Shin and Suzann Pettersen are all within one average point of Ochoa in the rankings, so we could see several different players top that list as this year goes along.

MINI-TIDBITS

- How can you not love Fred Couples' golf game? He has an effortless swing, hits the ball plenty long for a 50-year-old and he wears shoes, without socks of course, that look like something you'd wear while sailing your yacht. Oh by the way, Couples is 77-under par in four starts on the Champions Tour in 2010 and leads The Masters by a stroke after one round.

- Tough week to have an event opposite The Masters. The European Tour has a tournament in Portugal in which just one player ranked inside the top 150 in the world is competing.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Kevin Currie at kcurrie@sportsnetwork.com.

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