They did not come to forgive. They came to approve. They came to applaud. They came to shout their devotion in the direction of Tiger Woods.
It was 1:35 p.m. Thursday, and the fans jammed against the ropes on the first tee of Augusta National as if they were attending a church revival on Easter Sunday. They stood, jammed shoulder to shoulder, row after row, lined all the way down the fairway on an afternoon that felt like a clay oven. Their necks were craned. Their faces were adoring. Their voices were reverent.
Soon, Tiger would come.
Soon, he would be a golfer once more.
The applause began — and the small jokes in the gallery ceased — as soon as the marshal slid Woods' name into a standard at the tee. It rose as Woods worked his way through the crowd, and by the time he pulled the tiger's-head cover from his driver, the noise had escalated into that full-blown roar that is usually reserved for great shots that have been guided into the hole by golf angels.
Overhead, a plane circled with a banner that read "Tiger: Did You Mean Bootyism," a reference to Woods' comments about Buddhism, but on the ground, there was no disapproval of him to be found. No one heckled. No one booed. As near as anyone could tell, no one even frowned.
Woods smiled widely, and he touched his cap, and he silently mouthed "thank you." This was his place, and these were his people, and they cheered him as if he were their crown prince returning to the palace. In a way, perhaps he was.
Then Woods addressed the ball, fidgeted three times and launched a Nike golf ball down the middle of the fairway.
That was when it really got loud.
A thousand psychologists could spend a thousand years debating the deep inner meanings of the sound that rose for Woods. It was the sound of faith being restored. There was love in the applause, and glee, and maybe a bit of defiance aimed toward Woods' critics. There was a warmth and wonder, and a large portion of allegiance. Despite all Woods' scandals, despite all his flaws, this was his crowd, and it was there to watch a wayward son carry on.
"We love you, Tiger," one fan yelled.
"Welcome back, Tiger," yelled another.
"Make us proud," yelled a third.
Really, what would you expect? These were golf fans. They were not moralists. They were not protesters. They were not critics or jurists or, goodness forbid, sports writers. They were people who are entertained by great golf, and after 144 days, the best golfer on the planet was back.
"The people were just incredible," Woods said. "Incredible all day."
Believe what you will about Woods, but this was one of the incredible displays of focus in recent sports memory. If Woods had shown rust, if had seemed bothered by the scrutiny, it would have been understandable. Instead, he was Tiger. A day after the National Enquirer ran screaming headlines about yet another mistress, a day after being admonished by Augusta National chairman Billy Payne, a day after being lectured by his late father in a Nike ad, Woods threw up 4-under 68. He had two eagles. He had never broken 70 in his first round.
"It felt normal," Woods said.
It looked better than that. Even with a scoreboard chocked with familiar names, Tom Watson and Phil Mickelson and Freddie Couples, no one could match the love affair Woods had with his followers.
"I'm a golf fan," said Neil Rabb, a college student from Asheboro, N.C. "The rest of it doesn't have anything to do with my life."
Agree with them or not, that seemed to sum up the feelings of most of the fans who followed Woods around the course. There did not seem to be a dissenting voice in the crowd. Not even Payne's.
"I think everyone has screwed up," said Jeff Crouch, 35, an industrial engineer from Lexington, S.C. "And now Tiger has screwed up. But you don't give up, and he hasn't given up.
"I think most men will be a little envious of Tiger. You just have to remember all the temptations in front of him. I hate that it got out, because it has nothing to do with what he does for a living. He's a man. He's a damned good golfer, but he's a man."
Funny thing. The more fans seemed to love Woods, the more he loved them back. And maybe that's a thing for Woods to keep in mind. For a long time he has been distant, almost robotic. Few players in any sport have had Woods' focus, but sometimes perhaps he shut out too many things.
Not Thursday. Thursday, Woods set a personal record for the number of times he tipped his hat. As he walked the fairways, he smiled as if he was running for office. He chatted with his playing partners. For a day, at least, he didn't seem to be chasing Jack Nicklaus. He seemed to be channeling Arnold Palmer. After all the reasons he had given his fans to turn away, they loved him still. And he loved them right back.
Even in disappointment, Tiger kept his famed temper in check. When his tee shot on the fourth hole carried over the green, he doubled over, grimaced and said, "Oh, come on." On No. 11 he banged his club and uttered "damn," but that was it.
All in all, it was one of the great comebacks of Tiger's career. The swing is still there. The courses are still conquerable.
And the fans, with their unadulterated love, are still here to embrace him.