AUGUSTA, Ga. - The certain something in the air at the Masters on Friday was not a taunt-toting plane or the smell of a three-ring circus. No, nothing like that. This was just your run-of-the-mill exciting, dramatic, electric, ripe-with-possibilities major championship. Ho hum.
That is exactly what Tiger Woods was counting on when he decided to end his exile at the Masters. That is what he got. There was some angst early in the week, with people not knowing how to respond to him after the big sex scandal. There was sturm and drang Wednesday when Masters chairman Billy Payne ripped Woods for having "disappointed all of us." There was tension Thursday with the uncertainty over how Woods would be received. Yawn.
By Friday, fans were cheering and golfers were talking about the wind and the fast greens. It seemed silly to think that three days earlier, reporters had been asking Ian Poulter about dealing with a typhoon - playing in the group ahead of Woods. How impossible that was going to be!
Right. It's been so tough that Poulter is having one of the great tournaments of his life, tied for first with fellow Englishman Lee Westwood at 8 under, two shots ahead of you-know-who.
"I was happy to tee off when I did," Poulter said. "The crowds are 10 deep. That's always good. They are a very respectful crowd, and when that happens, you get a lot of electricity."
Most important is that the tournament is a tournament, not the carnival that might have happened if Woods had returned somewhere else.
The combination of Augusta National's security force, Woods' rumored private security retinue, the strict policy on media credentials and the legendary comportment of the "patrons" here represented a royal flush for Woods. From a public-relations perspective, it was all blue skies for him.
And those skies did not contain aircraft carrying banners tweaking the world's No. 1 golfer and comedians' No. 1 target. The FAA grounded a single-engine Cessna that had towed those banners Thursday, The Associated Press reported. Flight safety inspectors issued the decision after a request from air traffic managers in Augusta.
So all the focus was on the ground, where golfers had to deal with mundane matters such as hard pin positions and the fact that a ball can land in a spectator's drink cup. "We asked him to retrieve it. I didn't want to dig my hands into his soda," said Matt Kuchar, one of Woods' playing partners, whose approach on No. 9 was a little wide.
Kuchar was happier about saving par than costing the man his beverage. "It was almost empty," the golfer said. "I figured he could probably handle 50 cents for a Coke. I know they're not very expensive out here."
Friday was a day for normal matters, such as the ache in 60-year-old Tom Watson's hip and 50-year-old Fred Couples' back. "For a while I thought I could go from first to last," said Couples, who surprisingly had led after the first round. "The shot on 9 really killed me. It was a downhill lie, and those don't feel good on regular days. Today that kind of threw me for a loop. But it's OK."
Both senior golfers finished 3 under, not right in the hunt, but close enough to add interest to some very interesting golf. At least for this day, golf trumped the Woods saga.
"Now that he's back . . . I think that will wear itself out," Kuchar said. "I see it passing by a little more, the more he plays. The less we have to talk about it."
Woods might even win this week, as usual.