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Tiger Woods, during practice round at the Masters, looks a little rusty

April 5, 2010 |  8:51 am

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods looks relaxed, but he’s playing nervous.

Or, at the very least, the rust factor from being away from competitive golf for more than four months is real.

He stepped to the first tee at 8 a.m. Monday for his practice round with Fred Couples and hooked his drive toward the ninth fairway, drawing a few gasps from the crowd of about 500 – and a muted joke from Couples.

Players at Augusta National are not supposed to take mulligans, but they often do. Woods knocked his second drive in the fairway and acknowledged the cheering crowd with a nod and a smile. He looked appreciative.

As one observer noted, Woods said “thank you” more often around the first tee than he has during entire years at the Masters.

The massive galleries were exceedingly well-behaved. There were no reports of inflammatory comments, and few beyond the usual “Tiger!” cheers.

Woods, though, who made the turn at about 10:10 local time, did not give the patrons much to cheer about.

With swing instructor Hank Haney watching, Woods hit two tee balls on No. 4, the long par-3, but neither hit the green.

Crowds formed at tee boxes about 30 minutes before Woods arrived. As he waited to watch Woods on the seventh tee, one fan said the world’s No. 1 was no less popular in his mind.

“Let bygones be bygones,” said Doug Deheck, a resident of Snellville, Ga. “He didn’t do dog-fighting or anything.”

“A few catfights,” a nearby observer wryly added in a deep, Southern voice.

Woods, chewing gum, stepped to the seventh tee and striped his drive. He also hit a nice approach.

But on No. 8, he drove into some trees left of the fairway. And then, after dropping a ball in the fairway, he hooked his approach.

A fan tossed the ball to Woods’ caddie, Steve Williams, who dropped it short of the green, safe from trouble.

-- Teddy Greenstein

Photo: Tiger Woods tries to work off the rust during a practice round Monday. Credit: Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images.

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