AUGUSTA, Ga. -- After a four-month absence from professional golf, Tiger Woods returned to work Monday morning to prepare for this week's 74th Masters Tournament. The four-time winner played an early practice round with Fred Couples, and they were later joined by Jim Furyk. Woods looked happy and relaxed, acknowledging yells of "Go Tiger!" with appreciative smiles and handshakes from the hundreds of spectators.
"I didn't know what to expect in regards to the reception, and I tell you what, the galleries couldn't be nicer," said the 34-year-old Woods. "I mean, it was just incredible. The encouragement I got -- it blew me away to be honest with you, it really did. And the people here over the years, I know they are extremely respectful, but today was just something that really touched my heart pretty good."
It was the first time he has played in front of a gallery since winning the JBWere Masters in November.
"I'm actually going to try and not get as hot when I played," Woods said. "But then again, when I'm not as hot, I'm not going to be as exuberant, either. I can't play one without the other, so I made a conscious decision to try and tone down my negative outbursts and consequently I'm sure my positive outbursts will be calmed down, as well."
Following the round, Woods conducted a 30-minute interview with the media. It was his first since March 21st when Woods gave two five-minute interviews to ESPN and Golf Channel after announcing he would return to golf at the Masters.
Not surprisingly, Woods was initially nervous. He called Monday's playing partner Craig instead of Fred, referring to moderator Craig Heatley, chairman of the Masters Media Committee.
But, Woods settled down quickly, thoughtfully answering every question.
Woods was highly critical of his transgressions and is determined to become a better person.
He has gone back to his Buddhist roots and meditates regularly.
"Unfortunately what I have done over the past years has been just terrible to my family," said Woods, whose wife Elin and two children will not attend the tournament. "And the fact that I won golf tournaments I think is irrelevant. I'm going to have to explain all of this to them. You know, that's my responsibility. I did it."
How did he drift so far off course?
"I don't know," he said. "All I know if I acted just terribly, poorly, made some incredibly bad decisions -- decisions that have hurt so many people close to me.
"I fooled myself, as well. I lied to a lot of people, deceived lot of people, kept others in the dark; rationalized, even lied to myself. And when you strip all that away, you start realizing the full magnitude of it; it's pretty brutal."
The hardest part was missing his son Charlie's first birthday while undergoing treatment.
"And that hurts," Woods said. "That hurt a lot. I vowed I would never miss another one after that. That was a very hard day and something I will regret for the rest of my life."
Woods said his late father, Earl, was in his thoughts every day.
"It's amazing how things he says come back," said Woods. "In order to help people, you have to first learn to help yourself. I never understood that. When I was in treatment, I wrote that down; I looked at it every day, and learning how to help myself, I can help more people going forward."
Woods also reached out to his fellow players.
"I know that the players over the past few months have been bombarded with questions by all of you and the public, as well," said Woods. "Hopefully after today, players can be left alone to focus on the Masters and their game, not only for this week, but going forward as well. I apologize to all of them for having to endure what they have had to endure the past few months.
"A lot has happened in my life over the past five months, and I'm here at the Masters to play and compete. And just really excited about doing that. I missed the competition. I missed seeing the guys here. A lot of friends, I haven't seen in a while. It was great to play golf again with Freddie and Jim, two of my best friends out here, and I played with Mark [O'Meara]] yesterday for nine holes, and I'm playing with him again tomorrow, as well as Steve Stricker."
Woods said he had no intention of returning to competition so soon. He said the more balls he hit on the practice range, the more he yearned to return.
"Hank [Haney] came down and we started working again and that felt great," he said. "It felt like old times. To have Hank out there working on my game for hours and hours and hours on end, that's when I made the decision to come back and play."
Woods also addressed treatment with Dr. Anthony Galea during his rehab from ACL surgery and insisted he has never used performance-enhancing drugs.
"He did come to my house," said Woods. "He never gave me HGH or any PEDs. I've never taken that my entire life. I've never taken any illegal drug, ever."
Asked if he has been sought out by federal investigators, Woods replied, "Yea, they actually contacted Steiny [Mark Steinberg, his agent], and [we offered] full cooperation, whenever they need me, but as of right now, they have not asked for my time."
As for his game, Couples said Woods looked sharp with his irons and is still dialing in his driver. He has been experimenting with several Nike models and will likely make a decision Wednesday.
"Tiger had only 12 weeks to prepare for the Match Play Championship last year after his knee surgery," said Haney. "He's had only 10 weeks to prepare for this tournament."
Whether that is enough time to make a run at a fifth green jacket remains to be seen. Woods hasn't competed on U.S. soil since the Presidents Cup in San Francisco last October, where he helped the U.S. team defeat the International Team. His last tournament was JB Were Australian Masters in Melbourne last November, where he shot a final-round 4-under-par 68 to win by two strokes over Greg Chalmers. It marked his seventh victory of 2009 and the 94th of his career, 82 coming in official events.
While Woods' world is drastically different since late November, his on-course expectations remain the same.
"Nothing's changed, going out there and try to win this thing," he said.
And he can't wait to get to the first tee Thursday.
"I haven't looked forward to that tee shot in a long time, not like this," said Woods. "It feels fun again."