Finally getting down to the business of golf

Tiger Woods tees off today at 1:42 p.m. along with playing partners Matt Kuchar and K.J. Choi.

AUGUSTA -- The tradition unlike any other has, thus far, had a week unlike any other. Well-above-average early spring temperatures have baked the Augusta National track, firming up the course. A yellow cloud of pollen, worse than most ever remember around here, has caused patrons' allergies to go haywire.

Oh, and some fellow named Tiger returned to the game -- and to the public eye.

With the honorary tee shots from Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer at 7:40 this morning, the Masters will get under way and bring about a revival of normalcy.

It'll all be about golf -- and this hallowed golf course -- again.

The prospect of afternoon storms, too, could bring the course and weekend temps to what's typically expected here.

Course chairman Billy Payne, just as he did a year ago, said he expects scores low enough to elicit the famed Augusta roars.

The noise figures to be loudest, today anyway, circling the 1:42 p.m. threesome of K.J. Choi, Matt Kuchar -- and Tiger Woods.

Woods is coming out of solitude for the first time since the Nov. 27 car accident that led to a string of revelations about his personal life. He addressed 200 reporters earlier in the week. The air's been cleared, to some degree.

Woods is now tunneling his vision toward golf -- sort of. He's vowed to be more aware of the fans he claims he notoriously neglected.

The 34-year-old global icon has received encouragement all week from the gallery following his practice strokes, but, with another wave of alleged tawdry conduct coming out Wednesday, it'll be interesting to see how fans regard him as the tournament actually begins.

Payne used his throne Wednesday to, in effect, lecture the world's best player and torchbearer for the sport.

"Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we sought for our children," Payne said. "Is there a way forward? I hope, yes. I think, yes. But certainly his future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change."

Certainly, though, there are plenty of people curious about how Tiger will fare this weekend in relation to par and the players around him.

Most pundits here that follow the tour think it would be too much to ask for Woods to harness his swing and put together four (or at least three) good rounds.

More than the pressure of his sordid behavior, there's the fact that Woods hasn't played tournament golf since mid-November.

Best player ever or not, a layoff of that length is still incredibly difficult from which to return. Especially when that return comes in a major championship on a course that punishes minute mistakes and requires an adept touch around the greens.

Woods has already admitted, at least as of Monday, that he doesn't yet have his "feel."

He's hopeful it appears by the first tee.

"If not, I'm hoping it's the second hole," Woods said.

You might not know it this week by reading or watching anything Masters-related, but there are storylines beyond the wild world of Woods.

The course, itself, is sure to surface as one of those stories.

Recent temperatures well above the norm around here for late March and early April will have the course playing lightning fast. Possibly rain would likely only slow the course temporarily.

This golf course will be all about precision. That makes this something akin to a U.S. Open layout.

Ernie Els is playing the best golf in the world right now. He won twice in Florida in March, and he owns three major titles, but he's never won in Augusta. He's twice finished second (2000, '04), but he's missed the last three cuts.

Els is putting well now, though, and admitted Wednesday he likes his chances.

Two-time Masters champ Phil Mickelson (2004, '07) slides into this event without a whole lot of hubbub. He hasn't played his best in 2010, but, in Augusta, he's finished in the top five seven of the past nine years.

"There's something that relaxes me about this golf course because I don't feel like I have to be perfect," Mickelson said, adding that it is sort of a U.S. Open approach out here this week.

"As long as I can control my misses and put it where I can get up-and-down, I can let my short game save me some strokes."

A small circle of European players -- three-time major winner Paddy Harrington, Paul Casey and Lee Westwood -- all have the games to excel this week.

Europeans have won seven of the past 10 majors, although no European has won the Masters since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999.

"I think European golf is strong," said Harrington, who has twice won the British (2007, '08) and also took the PGA Championship ('08). "Any one of those players, I think, is capable of winning this week. If they play their game, they can do it."

The world's No. 2, Wisconsin's Steve Stricker, is flying under the radar after a sixth-place finish a year ago. As is South African Retief Goosen, the two-time runner-up who's healthy and playing much better than when he was cut here last year.

Jim Furyk is always a steady finisher at Augusta, and at tournaments that favor his brand of consistent ball-striking.

This discussion has included many of the top-tier players that contend at virtually every major, but you've got to remember the names of the past three Masters champions - American Zach Johnson, South African Trevor Immelman and Argentinean Angel Cabrera -- to recognize that anyone in the 96-player field could slip on a green blazer Sunday evening amid the Georgia pines.

Reach Travis Haney at