AUGUSTA, Ga. - All these years later, it was the world's turn to answer back. Loudly and emphatically, the part of the world that was at the Masters Thursday welcomed back the exiled No. 1 golfer by essentially saying, "Hello, Tiger."

Once Tiger Woods started his walk from the practice area toward his fiercely anticipated 1:40 p.m. tee time, it was clear he was entering his world. The crowd's polite ambivalence turned into unabashed cheering all the way through his 4-under-par 68 during a remarkable day at the Masters.

That day was marked by the start of a new life phase for Woods, who entered professional golf 14 years ago with a news conference that featured his phrase, "Hello world."

His worldwide stature crumbled, of course, in a sex scandal stemming from a late November SUV crash. That led to a leave of absence, which ended yesterday.

"[The] reception was incredible, from the time I went to the putting green, to the range and back to the putting green, to the first tee and pretty much all day," Woods said. "It was just incredible."

He seemed heartened by it, playing solidly and sometimes spectacularly. His sweeping 205-yard 5-iron, into the wind, around a bank of trees on the par 4 ninth, likely will make its way into his career highlight DVD. It was his best first-round score ever at the Masters and his first two-eagle round here.

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When he was asked what it all meant, Woods downplayed it, saying, "It meant that I'm two shots off the lead. I'm here to play a golf tournament."

But the Masters is not just any golf tournament, and this was not just any day at the Masters. Woods' karma lifted others somehow connected to him.

Fifty-year-old Fred Couples, who eased Woods' return by playing a breezy practice round with him Monday, is leading at 6 under. Sixty-year-old Tom Watson, who had suggested during the winter that Woods needs to respect golf more, is one shot back. So are Woods' major rival, Phil Mickelson; Y.E. Yang, who beat Woods head-to-head at the PGA Championship last year; Lee Westwood, and K.J. Choi, who supposedly was going to have a rough time playing in the carnival atmosphere of Woods' group.

As it turned out, everything was benign - aside from taunting signs directed at Woods trailing from a plane that flew across the course.

Course conditions hardly were harsh. "I think they were a little kind to us with some of the flags," Westwood said. Couples added that the lack of a baking sun kept the fairways and greens soft. On the other hand, even an expected storm pulled its punch. After a tornado watch was posted, the front split.

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Despite the cloud cover, it was a moment in the sun for Woods. He mostly remained true to his pledge of being more restrained in his reactions, good and bad (notwithstanding a yelp and the dropping of a club on No. 14). "I went about my business," he said.

Woods was uplifted by a Nike commercial that some people found eerie. The spot featured words from his late father, Earl. "Well, I think it was very apropos,'' he said. "My dad can speak to me from different ways, even when he's long gone. I think any son who has lost a father . . . I think they would understand the spot."

Earl's son understands the ways of his new world, which included a stern rebuke from Masters chairman Billy Payne. On Wednesday, Payne said Woods "disappointed all of us."

When he was asked about that yesterday, Woods said, "I was disappointed in myself, too."