Tiger Woods back on the course

February 25, 2009 6:08:10 PM PST
Tiger Woods had seven minutes to kill, which for a player who plans his routine to the very second might have been unsettling. Eight months away had taught him something about patience, though, and he calmly peeled a banana and ate it as he waited for his turn on the first tee. There were a few butterflies, as there always are.

But his surgically repaired left knee was fine, and the shots on the driving range felt good. An Aussie named Brendan Jones awaited in the first round of the Accenture Match Play Championship, and Woods knew his opponent's stomach had to be churning with even more butterflies of his own.

"It felt like nothing had changed," Woods said. "It was business as usual."

Which is to say that order was restored to the world of golf. Woods was back and he won.

The official time was 12:09 p.m. Wednesday when Woods stood on mended knee with a 3-wood in his hand and the first fairway in front of him. It had been 253 days since he was last seen limping his way to a U.S. Open title, and the brown Arizona desert was a stark contrast to the cliffs overlooking the blue Pacific at Torrey Pines.

That was the final round of a major championship, and this was just the first round of what could be a very long week.

But Woods was right. Nothing much had changed.

Yes, the knee was better. The doctors did their job repairing his anterior cruciate ligament, and Woods did his in hundreds of sometimes painful hours of rehabbing it.

But the swing was the same, and so were the shots. Unfortunately for Jones, so was the overwhelming will to win.

Woods birdied the first hole from five feet, much to the delight of the large crowd that cheered his every move. But it was on the second hole, a 574-yard expanse of green in between towering saguaro cactuses, where any doubt either Woods or his fans had was eliminated in a single shot.

The 3-iron soared majestically toward the pin before settling on an upper ledge of the undulating green, just four feet short of the hole.

"Gawd, look at that!" someone behind Woods screamed.

Look they did, and Woods looked along with them. Leaning forward on his left knee as he tracked the ball through the air, Woods gave an abbreviated pump of his fist.

The putt was conceded for eagle, and Jones might have just conceded the match along with it. Two holes into his comeback, Woods was dominating once again.

"As I walked off the first hole, there was just mayhem - media, and everyone was just running," Jones said. "I was walking in amongst everybody, and I heard one of the media there say, 'All right, only another nine holes to go for a 10-and-8.' And I gave him a bit of a spray. And then (Woods) eagled the second and I thought, 'Well, maybe he's right."'

It wasn't nearly that bad - the final score was 3-and-2 - but it might have been had Woods not showed a bit of rust on some front nine iron shots. He made three bogeys in the first seven holes, one when he drove into the rough on No. 5 and then dumped his second shot into a greenside bunker.

Staring at the offending ball after it left his club, Woods shouted an expletive. For the record, it was 59 minutes into the round.

The will to compete was very much alive.

"I don't go to an event that I don't think I can win," Woods said. "Why go? It doesn't make any sense to me. So I entered this event with the same intention I do every event since I was a little boy, and that's to win."

Woods now has his own little boy, but anyone who thought the birth a few weeks back of Charlie Axel might soften him on the course should think again. Woods talked after the round about how watching that birth and teaching his daughter new words is more important than anything he does in golf, but he plays with the same intensity and fire that he did a decade ago.

The fans love every minute of it, and it's easy to see why TV ratings for tournaments Woods is in are double the ones he misses. On this day, they only had eyes for him and basically ignored the 31 other matches taking place on the same course.

"They weren't screaming on any other matches, but you could hear them screaming out there on his match, and that's what we needed," Davis Love III said.

Indeed, Woods' absence seemed to make his fellow pros realize even more than they did before how their fortunes are so closely aligned with his. He carries the sport to a new level, and when he's not playing, there's not much interest.

That doesn't mean they particularly want to be next in line to take their beating.

His opponent in the next round, Tim Clark, is the 32nd seeded player in the world, but he knows there's a big gap between No. 1 and anyone else.

"I live in Scottsdale so I'm prepared to get in a car and go home if I need to," Clark said.