AUGUSTA, Ga. - It was pushing six o'clock, the shadows were making headway and the only sounds were mowers and service vehicles going from one hole to the next. About 150 people quietly watched as Matt Kuchar walked up the 18th fairway, preparing for his round today.

This is basically the equivalent of preparing for a deep sea dive by spending time in the desert. That is to say, Kuchar's first round of the Masters will be the diametrical opposite of tranquil and quiet. He and K.J. Choi will be in the same group with Tiger Woods when he returns to golf, with a good chunk of the world watching.

"I kind of anticipated it," Kuchar said, adding that Masters committee member Fred Ridley told him as he left the first tee of the practice round. "I think most of us in the field thought, 'It's probably going to be me.' We all figure somebody has got to get the lucky straw and I got the lucky straw.

"There's just so many interesting things about the whole scenario. It's going to be cool to have a front row seat for it. I'll be playing golf but there will be great stories to tell," he said.

Choi, a seven-time PGA Tour winner, said through an interpreter, "I sort of had the feeling when I left [home in] Dallas for here, I said to myself, 'It would be cool if I was paired to Tiger.' "

Sure enough, he will be on a well watched tee at 1:42 p.m. for the next major episode in golf's Tiger Woods era. Mostly, his fellow pros get to ride the high tide he creates (big prize money) and sometimes they get caught in the storm. They generally don't mind.

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They know that Woods apologized to his fellow Tour members Monday for having subjected them to answering all kinds of questions about his five-month absence.

"I don't think anyone personally held it against him," Geoff Ogilvy said. "There might be a few players that were grumpy about it, but we have been answering questions about Tiger for 15 years."

Woods received the same polite encouragement Tuesday, during his practice round with longtime friend Mark O'Meara, that he had on Monday.

"He's ready," said O'Meara, who hasn't been as close with Woods in recent years because of his own divorce, remarriage and move from Florida to Texas. They did reflect on the feeling Tuesday that it was like old times, just the two of them walking and talking - with Woods outdriving O'Meara by 40 yards.

"His game is pretty sharp. He's not totally there but he played some beautiful shots, O'Meara said. "He hit some stray drives, but overall, relative to his game, he was a 7 or 8, something like that. He can win when he's a 7 or 8. He doesn't have to be a 10."

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Anyone playing with Woods is more likely to score a 10, what with all the distractions. The distractions could be in overdrive tomorrow, given the context. Still, Choi said he has played with Woods several times and likes big crowds.

"I'm happy he's back because, whether we like it or not, there's a lot of things to learn from Tiger," Choi said. "He's such a good ambassador for the game."

Kuchar, who played well with Woods as a 19-year-old amateur at the 1998 Masters, said that Woods "has elevated pretty much everything that has to do with golf."

But Kuchar noted that the Masters and golf were around long before Woods. "It seems like the game would still be great, with or without him," he said. "I don't think anybody is bigger than the game. I think we've seen lapses where he was injured or where he has been away from the game and the game has continued, to great success."