"I went home with the waitress,

The way I always do"

--Warren Zevon, "Lawyers, Guns and Money"

AUGUSTA -- It would have been the perfect scene-setting rock 'n' roll intro to first-round Masters television coverage.

But scandal? Turns out that was so last winter.

Spring sprung, azaleas and dogwoods are in bloom at Augusta National, and Tiger Woods was back on a golf course where he belongs and cannot get into trouble deeper than a sand trap.

TMZ this week surely has controversy-sniffing reporters sprinkled throughout Augusta, North Augusta and parts of Edgefield. But the Masters on Thursday was about adulation, not adultery.

For better or worse, Tiger got a great big group hug and hugged back with his best Masters opening round.

The shaken star seemed relieved to be back home on his favorite golf sanctuary. Fans were forgiving or forgetful. He might not win the tournament, but Tiger Woods won the crowd with a 4-under 68 riding shotgun with the happy vibe.

A finish two shots off the lead started with a pack of supportive patrons surrounding the first tee.

Just after 1:42 p.m.: Woods hauls off and whacks one.

"We love you, Tiger!"

Long.

"Way to rip, Tiger!"

Almost straight down the middle of the fairway.

"Tiger, you're the man!"

This was an evidently more humble, clearly more personable Tiger.

"I said 'Thank you' all the way," Woods said. "I was saying 'Thank you' all day. The people were incredible."

Vintage greatness

He was his vintage self down the front stretch with an eagle -- Tiger's first of two Thursday -- on the par-5 eighth hole and a remarkable second shot on No. 9.

In trouble with an initial blast that went left and caught a branch, Woods faced a tricky downhill angle around trees and into the teeth of a driving, drizzly wind. With the green uphill, and to the left.

Ho-hum. A near-perfect 5-iron hook shot to the green splendidly placed above the hole. Woods skipped sideways into the fairway Sergio Garcia-style while tracking the shot amid a roar.

"I was surprised it held," Woods said of the shot, "because it came out so low."

He dropped the 10-foot putt for a birdie to take the turn at 3 under.

Another roar.

"A girl who drove Tiger from the clubhouse to the driving range on a golf cart said he was more conversational than last year," someone said.

"Really?"

"Yes. She said last year he just complained about pollen a lot."

Tip of the cap

Putting Tiger in the second-to-last grouping Thursday might have been like waving a red flag in front of a potential troublemaker already several beers into the day.

It only takes one goofball.

Risk: Minimal. Getting escorted onto Washington Road without getting to see much of the Adam Scott-David Duval-Ricky Barnes group.

Reward: Giving that Tiger Woods a piece of your mind.

But the Tiger show featured only quiet disapproval, most notably a small airplane flying above the Augusta National perimeter and pulling a sign with changing versions of off-color comments.

Tiger stuck with the same response to appreciative fans: A tip of his signature black ballcap several times per hole. But he remained focused.

"I'm here," he said, "to play a golf tournament."

He did not take time out to sign autographs for patrons dressing $1.50 sandwiches at the condiments stand, or end the day with a meet and greet at Wendy's.

But an apparently nicer Tiger liked being liked and showed it.

If he continues to counter adversity with kindness, humility and stellar play -- always better than lawyers, guns and money -- the sport's greatest player will be even more fun to watch than before.

Reach Gene Sapakoff at gsapakoff@postandcourier.com or (843) 937-5593.