MARANA, ARIZ. — Ever the resident of some sublime golfing planet with a population of one, Tiger Woods walked into a coronation Wednesday under the weird impression he'd come just to hit an advantageous tee shot.
He came through a walkway that seemed eight months long, emerged onto the first tee and may or may not have heard the equivalent cheers that greeted both his name and that of his Accenture Match Play first-round opponent and soon-to-be victim by 3 and 2, Australia's Brendan Jones.
"Mr. Woods has the honors; play away, please," said the starter, and beneath a high desert sun that could chafe an iguana, Woods stood over his first PGA Tour drive since June 16 at Torrey Pines in the U.S. Open, eight months and one day since surgeons reconstructed his left knee.
He backed off once, stepped back up there, blasted the thing and gave the club that familiar twirl that seems to translate into satisfaction. It wound up 301 yards up ahead on the right edge of the fairway, and after all the speculation and all the anticipation and all the noise, he'd been focused on bunkers.
"I was just in my own little world," he said, "just trying to make sure that I knew what the number was to the bunker, where the wind was coming from, slightly off left, am I going to hit a flat three-wood, draw the ball, trying to decide what shot to hit."
Off in a flourish with a birdie and a conceded eagle on the first two holes, steady in the middle while losing only one hole on the front nine and thrilling near the finish with a 19-foot eagle putt from fringe on No. 13, he ensured his clamber toward fitness would get at least one more day at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, and that it would involve a second-round opponent he scorched 5 and 4 in the second round in 2007, South African Tim Clark.
With that bout secured, Woods headed toward elevation and ice, his knee's two latest friends.
"I'm very pleased at how it felt all day," he said. "I thought that it would be more stiff" on the No. 15 tee, which he accessed only after a long sit because of a backup. "But it felt fine."
It traveled the necessary 16 holes in the ligament heaven of Arizona, starting up the first fairway to an approach shot Woods would strike to within five feet. The defending champion and inveterate No. 1 golfer hurriedly went 2-up when his approach on No. 2 skied 236 yards and nestled in 5 1/2 feet from the cup, promising an eagle Jones would concede.
"His ball flight is different to pretty much everyone else's, and it was fun to see different trajectories that he hits the ball," said Jones, the world's No. 64 player and an eight-time winner on the Japan Tour who later added, "Yeah, he's Tiger, he does freakish stuff."
Jones did hang in, halving four holes and then halving the deficit, winning No. 7 when Woods couldn't get up and down from in front of the green, but Woods countered on No. 8 with a seven-foot birdie, then won No. 12 when Jones burrowed in the green-side fringe, and No. 13 with that eagle.
Down four holes with five to play, Jones did rise well above the road-kill level before Woods' closing 3 1/2 -foot par putt on par-three No. 16 called off the festivities and led Jones to say, "I was beaten by the best player on the planet. Three and two to Tiger Woods, I'm pretty happy with that."
In a startling development, other players also played Wednesday, the event insisting on conducting 31 other first-round matches. Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas won easily, and Northern Ireland's 19-year-old Rory McIlroy, a winner this year in Dubai on the European Tour, also advanced. He could play Woods in the third round if he can win against Hunter Mahan today and then refrain from fainting on the first tee Friday as he meets his idol.
Phil Mickelson steeled as he did at Riviera on Sunday to beat Angel Cabrera in 19 holes after losing holes 15 through 18, but Sergio Garcia, the world's No. 2 player debuting on U.S. soil in 2009, went out to South Africa's Charl Schwartzel by 1-up with a bogey on No. 18, and No. 3 Padraig Harrington was ousted by Pat Perez. Many players remarked about the slowness and undulation of the greens, which Villegas and Woods found unprecedented.
To the teeming assemblage of reporters and the three-deep midweek galleries, though, all of that ran well below the radar of what Woods called a comeback "totally different" from his others because his surgery had been major.
Certainly the hubbub around No. 1 had been totally different for a February in Arizona, even as a 301-yard drive had been just the same. "It really is just another shot," Woods said. "Just because I've taken time off and away from a competitive environment doesn't change the nature of how you execute a golf shot."
Commotion all around, and the golfer who caused it barely realized? You might say Tiger Woods had returned.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Wednesday's opening- round match of Tiger Woods and Brendan Jones.
*--* Woods Hole Jones 1 up 1 2 up 2 2 up 3 2 up 4 2 up 5 2 up 6 1 up 7 2 up 8 2 up 9 2 up 10 2 up 11 3 up 12 4 up 13 4 up 14 3 up 15 3 up 16 *--*
Up next: Woods faces Tim Clark at 11 a.m. PST today on the Golf Channel.
Also today: Phil Mickelson-Zach Johnson; Davis Love III-Justin Leonard; Ernie Els-Steve Stricker.
Today's tee times
8:30 a.m. -- Phil Mickelson vs. Zach Johnson
8:42 -- Lee Westwood vs. Stewart Cink
8:55 -- Davis Love III vs.
9:08 -- Anthony Kim vs.
9:20 -- Geoff Ogilvy vs.
9:33 -- Camilo Villegas vs.
Miguel Angel Jimenez
9:46 -- Peter Hanson vs.
9:58 -- Matthew Goggin vs.
10:11 -- Vijay Singh vs.
10:24 -- Ernie Els vs.
10:36 -- Pat Perez vs. Ross Fisher
10:49 -- Jim Furyk vs.
11:02 -- Tiger Woods vs.
11:15 -- Rory McIlroy vs.
11:28 -- Charl Schwartzel vs.
11:40 -- Boo Weekley vs.
-- All times PST