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Tiger Woods, on course

Returning to PGA competition after months mending his left knee, he's looking forward to 'that rush.'

February 25, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

MARANA, ARIZ. — Last seen amid the Torreys in June, Tiger Woods materialized Tuesday morning amid the saguaros in February, luring one of the thicker practice-round galleries on informal record.

Eyeballs resumed their craven need to tag along as he played and walked the 18 holes of the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club northwest of Tucson on the eve of golf's most momentous return since Ben Hogan at Riviera in 1950. The droves followed him past the prickly pear and the barrel cactus and the dreaded cholla that jumped out and stabbed one guy in the shoulder, and they often marveled at the guy in the blue-striped shirt and gray slacks.

"Give me a break!" one exclaimed when Woods' tee shot on the par-three 16th hole obediently took up shop three feet from the cup.

"You see the shape on that baby?" another said.

"Welcome back, Tiger!" said a man along the 17th fairway, and in a seldom-seen twist, Woods turned and nodded appreciation.

"Sorry I'm late," Woods later said in a raging fire-code violation of an interview tent. "I forgot how long it takes to play 18 holes walking."

For the first time since he won a 19-hole U.S. Open playoff at Torrey Pines last June 16, he walked the 18 at a PGA Tour event on the eve of his return slated for today in the Accenture World Match Play Championship. His absence to rehabilitate from left-knee surgery had lasted eight months, but PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem cracked, "What was it, four, 4 1/2 years now?"

The world's No. 3 player, Phil Mickelson, said, "As I'm walking to the range, I've never seen so many cameras and photographers and so forth, especially that early in the morning."

Fresh adrenaline traveled the tour's bloodstream in temperatures nearing 90 degrees as Woods and his coterie traveled the 7,849-yard Jack Nicklaus course in its first year as host of the 64-man tournament. With cameras permitted on practice days, shutters clicked amok, and Woods dutifully stopped mid-swing a few times before continuing. He looked same-as-ever if a bit surreal given the familiarity of his absence.

Approaching his first-round match against No. 64 Brendan Jones of Australia, Woods said, "I'm looking forward to the rush tomorrow, I really am, waking up tomorrow and getting ready for my round and getting focused." He said his wife, Elin, had dialed him around dawn to ask how it felt to re-enter the tour setting, and he'd told her, "It feels the same. Nothing feels any different."

Yet one pivotal thing did differ in feeling, for when he finished his long walk, he raved about a left knee that feels as he'd forgotten it could feel.

"I hadn't known what it's like to feel this way in so long," he said. "To have it feel this healthy, this solid, this secure . . . "

Woods had surgery last June 24, and he sought counsel from athletes in other sports about the rigors of rehabilitation. Golf-wise, however, he said the respite wound up having the unforeseeable effect of unearthing some goodies from his bag.

He couldn't push it, so he had to finagle it.

"I got really good at hitting a five-iron 100 yards," he said. "I could really dial that in. My short game has gotten a little bit better. I've got more shots than I did before, just because I've spent so much time on it, chipping and all the different shots around the greens. Some of the shots I had forgotten that I had over the years, I kind of remembered how to hit them again, which was kind of nice."

Asked what he'd missed most, he quipped, "I missed sitting here in front of you guys. Talking. Just hanging out here. No, I miss that rush of playing and competing, I really do, getting on that first tee and feeling it. I miss that."

Mostly, though, he just looked exhilarated, grinning hugely at times about the time the layoff gave him with his wife and his 20-month-old daughter Sam, using phrases such as "a blessing in disguise" and "the closeness that I feel" -- and, in an unthinkable development, reporting he'd curtailed practice sessions when his newborn son Charlie would wake. "That's one of the beauties of living on a golf course," he said.

For today's tee-off at 11 a.m. PST, he suspects he'll feel nervous, and he relished the thought of "that rush." He wondered how he'd work his way into "the rhythm of the round," and he indicated he can't expect maximal readiness because he reminded, "I've played one tournament in 10 months," true because he also did not play between the Masters in April and the U.S. Open in June.

That makes this event, featuring the world's top 64 players in a six-round, knockout format, a rare turn in the 12-year history of Woods-observing. By Woods' account, it's only the second of the 237 PGA Tour events he has entered beneath full-on readiness.

The other would be the 2006 U.S. Open, which he entered six weeks after the death of his father, Earl, of cancer at 74.

"That was the only one. Yeah," Woods said.

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chuck.culpepper@yahoo.com

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Tracking Tiger

Visit the website today for multiple updates on Tiger Woods' match.

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Match Play Championship

TODAY-SUNDAY

at the Ritz Carlton Golf Club, Dove Mountain, Marana, Ariz.

TV: Today-Fri. 11 a.m.-3 p.m., GOLF. Sat.-7-11 a.m., GOLF and 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Ch. 4. Sunday, 7-10:30 a.m. GOLF and 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Ch. 4

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ALSO: Northern Trust didn't cut the glitz after getting bailout money. PAGE C1

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