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Tiger is first to play practice round

Tiger Woods was the last player to leave Bethpage Black when the U.S. Open was last held at Bethpage Black, so it only figures he was the first player on the course this time around.

Seven years after winning the first U.S. Open here, Woods kicked off this year's Open by playing the tournament's first official practice round early yesterday morning.

Accompanied by caddie Steve Williams and swing coach Hank Haney, Woods called it quits after 2 hours, 1 minute on the course, leaving in a tan van that was parked just past the ninth hole.

Practice rounds were scheduled to begin at 7 yesterday morning, but Woods apparently was so eager to get going that he was on the first tee at 6:41, awaiting the go-ahead to begin play.

But a rash of heavy rain fell, causing Woods to return to the clubhouse. After a 30-minute delay, Woods returned and teed off at 7:27 a.m. Using a wood, his drive landed just beyond the trees that line the dogleg right, perfectly splitting the fairway just like you'd expect.

There were fewer than 20 people waiting in the rain for Woods when he first emerged from the clubhouse, but by the time the rain subsided and Woods came back out, the crowd had grown considerably.

For someone who is preparing for a major tournament and was being trailed by an estimated 500 people, Woods looked reasonably relaxed. He did not acknowledge the crowd much, but he certainly didn't seem all that bothered by the few people who inevitably yelled out to him as he walked each hole.

Of his nine tee shots, only one landed in the rough - on the par-4, 389-yard second hole. He impressively reached the green on the par-5 517-yard fourth hole in only two shots. And he mastered both the par-3 third and eighth holes by placing his tee shots not all that far from the hole.

Because it was a practice round, he didn't keep score - and he didn't have his game face on, either.

That was evident when he saw ESPN golf analyst Andy North on the tee box at the sixth green. Woods flashed one of his rare smiles on the course and welcomed the two-time U.S. Open champ with an emphatic handshake. North accompanied Woods' group through the ninth hole.

Just like most players, Woods took his time on the greens, working on his putting and chipping from various spots so he can experience the full terrain.

Then after his abbreviated nine-hole round was over, Woods spent another 40 minutes working on his putting and chipping at the putting green in front of the clubhouse.

There were fans two or three deep watching and capturing Woods' practice putts with their cell-phone cameras, just like they did when Woods made a surprise visit to Bethpage State Park exactly one week ago.

Once Woods was finished putting, he called over a security guard, whispered something and within minutes, there were two New York State troopers and another armed security guard accompanying Woods and his caddie to a Lexus waiting for him in the parking lot. His day was over.

But his U.S. Open is only beginning.

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