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Tiger the golfer, not a punch line, is back

There was a cool, fresh breeze blowing when Tiger Woods began the second round of the Masters Friday. The sun was shining, the grass greener than green, the day sugared with promise.

Out there, with a club in his hands and tens of thousands waiting to see him do something magical, he was, mercifully for him and for those of us weary of scandal, a golfer, not a dirty joke.

The golf world wondered how he would handle things this week after his prolonged layoff to deal with the fallout from his extramarital affairs. Thursday and Friday, he gave us the answer. He may have lost his dignity but he hasn't lost his golf game. He's playing like a man who has won 14 of the 50 major championships in which he has played and is intent on winning another. He's playing like Tiger Woods.

A 4-under-par 68 on Thursday, his best opening round ever in this event, took care of any doubts that might have crept into his mind. Friday, he wrung a 70 out of a course that had grown far less generous overnight.

That carried him into a tie for third at the halfway mark.

Like your position on the leader board, Tiger?

That one brought a big smile to his face. "Yeah," he said, "yeah." It was almost a leer. Jack Nicholson couldn't have done it better.

Except for the pollen that has had him sniffling and coughing and blinking all week, Woods is feeling "very good, very comfortable."

Two of many reasons, aside from some sharp golf:

As he walked up the hill on the last hole Friday, the people ringing the green gave him a standing ovation. They obviously saw a golfer, not a tabloid headline.

In his post-round interview, every question from the writers was about golf. The other stuff has run its course inside the gates of Augusta National, at least for the time being.

I'm not surprised that Woods has played so well to this point. He's the best, physically and mentally. You may get a little rusty but you don't forget how the game is played. I wouldn't be surprised if he won.

He wouldn't either.

"It feels good, very good, to be back and in contention," he said.

It feels good to have him.