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Back on golf’s grandest stage, Tiger Woods is still Tiger Woods

Turns out, he is what they say he is.

He is what they shout. He is what they crave. He is what they believe.

No matter how much his sleazy behavior has betrayed everything he claimed to be, Tiger Wood is still The Man.

That’s how it happens in sports, remember? That’s how it happened at Augusta National on Thursday, in a roaring, revealing way that will ensure you never again forget.

On golf’s grandest stage, Woods crawled out from beneath a five-month sex scandal into the arms of an adoring public and the strength of an astounding swing. Playing with the desperation of one seeking forgiveness, Woods found it in his score, owning the crowd, controlling the course, finishing the Masters’ first day only two strokes off the lead with a four-under-par 68.

“It’s hard to believe,” Woods said. “I’ve turned it around.”

Of course he has. You knew he would. No matter how much any fool like me or Billy Payne or corporate America would scold, you knew he was always just one good tee shot from redemption.

We don’t want our sports stars to enlighten or influence, we want them to entertain. We judge their morality with a stat sheet and their integrity with a scoreboard. Woods’ first round in 144 days was his best first round ever at Augusta. Now that’s remorse.

Steve Rojas, a Moreno Valley native who now lives in Waycross, Ga., was standing along the first fairway smoking a big cigar while pounding out the sort of big applause that would accompany Woods the entire afternoon.

“What you do in your private time is your own business,” he said, echoing the feelings of seemingly everyone in the fawning crowd. “In America, we like our superstars.”

In a club down the road in Atlanta, one of Woods’ alleged mistresses was stripping. Throughout the Internet, the confessions of a new alleged mistress — a 21-year-old neighbor — were flowing. On television, a crass commercial in which Woods exploits his father’s memory while trying to profit from his own misdeeds was airing.

And, oh yes, high above the first tee, a banner attached to its tail, an airplane was buzzing.

The sign: “Tiger: Did You Mean Bootyism?”

It was later replaced with this sign: “Sex Addict? Yeah. Right. Sure. Me Too.”

Yet none of it mattered, because Woods was ripping it. He sank a putt for a birdie on the third hole. He made a 12-foot eagle putt on the eighth hole. He curled an approach shot 210 yards around a tree and landed it close enough for a birdie putt on the ninth hole.

On No. 13, he missed an eagle putt and settled for birdie. On No. 15, he made an eagle putt, giving him two eagles in one round for the first time in his career here. Only a missed five-footer on No. 18 kept him from scoring even lower.

His round ended under rolling black clouds spitting rain. Woods stalked to the final green with his head tucked under a black cap. The crowd leaped from their folding chairs and enveloped him in a standing ovation that cut through the impending mist.

It was triumphant, it was cleansing. And, OK, it was also really creepy.

“Just going about my business,” Woods said. “Whatever the emotions were, the emotions were.”

Just going about his business, indeed. The new Tiger was forgiven so quickly and enthusiastically, he immediately figured it was fine to revert to the old Tiger.

His pledge to watch his temper? It lasted exactly 14 holes, before he botched an approach shot, dropped his club, spun on his heels and screamed.

His promise to be more inviting to fans? While he seemed to smile more on the course, when the round ended, he hustled away without even glancing at the mob that cried out to him. Not that anybody seems to care about any of that.

“I’m a golf fan, and what he did has nothing to do with my life. I just want to see him play golf,” said Neil Rabb, a student from Asheboro, N.C.

After Thursday, one could even surmise that, while it has cost Woods millions in endorsements, the sex scandal has probably made him more popular and entitled. Who else would have the nerve to approve that awful Nike commercial in which he stares sadly at the camera while the voice of his late father offers advice?

“I think any son who has lost a father who meant so much in their life, I think they would understand the spot,” Woods said.

Whatever. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters but the golf. You knew that. I knew that. End of story. Play on.

Henceforth, instead of ranting about Tiger Woods, I vow to spend that time in the study of Bootyism.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke


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