From Augusta, Ga. — The voice is apologetic, the posture accommodating, the presence appreciative.
But the aura remains. Tiger Woods still has it, still works it, still lords it over a game he embarrassed and players he compromised.
Tiger Woods still owns golf.
Strippers and porn stars couldn't take it from him. A murky automobile accident couldn't damage it for him. Steroid allegations haven't even begun to cling to him.
Tiger Woods still owns golf, a fact made clear this week as he returns from a five-month sex scandal not as a heel, but a hero.
He still owns the Masters, which has not only welcomed him back with a green-jacketed embrace, but has allowed him to flood its sacred Augusta National course with security guards carrying mug shots of his alleged mistresses.
He still owns the fans, who have cheered him so much during practice rounds here that they performed the miraculous task of raising a Titleist-sized lump in his throat.
Finally, most impressively, he still owns the players, who continue to recoil from his influence and bow to his bankability.
On Tuesday, two days before Woods will make the Masters his first tournament of the year, I asked several of the game's best players for an opinion about their fallen king. These are articulate superstars, yet their answers were filled with hooks, slices, and yips, nimble athletes suddenly tongue-tied.
I asked Phil Mickelson about how he felt watching the Woods saga unfold, and he said, "You know, I really don't want to go into that."
I asked Steve Stricker about Woods' apology to the players and he said, "We're really in no position to answer those questions. I'm in the dark. Everybody's in the dark. We're all speculating. . . . It's just, you know, it's a tough subject."
Even the one person who could speak for all of golf with no fear of retribution, the crusty and charming and retired Jack Nicklaus, backed off.
"It's been none of my business, so I've stayed away from it, frankly," Nicklaus said.
"I don't know, I think I'll stay away from that," Nicklaus said.
Does Woods need to show the game more respect?
"I'll stay away from that too," Nicklaus said.
Has he hurt his legacy?
"That's a pretty hard question for me to answer. . . . I don't think I'll answer it," Nicklaus said.
Nicklaus finally agreed to continue the news conference under one condition. "If anybody has got anything other than Tiger questions," he said.
Tiger Woods still owns golf, and the numbers say he bought it fair and square. In 1996, the year Woods joined the PGA Tour, there was a total of $70 million in prize money. This year, the projected prize money is $270 million.
Who wants to mess with a $200-million golden goose? That kind of money can buy plenty of priceless items, most notably silence and respect.
"He doesn't owe me an apology," Mickelson said. "In the last 12 years, he's done so much for the game of golf. I don't know if there's been an individual who has capitalized more on the opportunities that he's brought to the game of golf than myself. He doesn't owe me a thing."
Another reason for the players' reluctance to comment is that they fear what they don't know, and none of them really know Woods.
Said Padraig Harrington: "I have no idea what is going on in his head this week, if his mind is on the golf or not, you can never quite tell."
Said Stricker: "He doesn't give us a lot, which is up to him. . . . That's why I'm having a hard time talking about it right now."
The closest anyone came to actually reacting to the story was Stricker, who acknowledged that Woods has put the tour on a five-month roller coaster.
"It's been a wild emotional ride, I think, for everybody that's been involved with the game," he said.
But when asked to describe that emotion, Stricker said, "I don't' know if I was a little bit hurt, maybe that's not really the right word. But maybe a little bit. I don't know."
When it came to talking about the effect of the sex and steroid allegations, none of them knew. Even when they tried to say they knew, they didn't know.
"I don't know, I mean, I don't know what to say there," Mickelson said. " I think we were all. . . . I don't know."
Tiger Woods still owns golf because he still owns his competitors' heads, because they still don't think they can beat him even when he's emotionally beaten, all of them weak at the sight of a guy who hasn't played a competitive round since November.
"We've spent 15 years underestimating what he can do," Geoff Ogilvy said. "I have 100% confidence in his ability to win the tournament."
Added Mickelson: "That's a crazy question to ask, can he win."
Yet, on a day when the power of Tiger Woods bloomed like an azalea on HGH, it's the only question they answered.
Can he win? C'mon. He's already won.