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Woods chases new title: Comeback player of year

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Jim Litke
February 24, 2009

Tiger Woods returns to golf this week to begin making his case for the one award he never dreamed he’d contend for: PGA Tour comeback player of the year.


Great. As if Woods wasn’t intimidating before, the man who had everything—14 majors, a Swedish bikini-model wife, a daughter, 155-foot yacht, two homes and a palace under construction on Jupiter Island—now has plenty of other things to play for.


Since limping off the 91st and final hole after winning the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines last June, Woods has gained a son, lost a sponsor, undergone reconstructive surgery on a chronically aching left knee and been reminded nearly every day how much the game is suffering without him.


“One of the great things coming back,” he said last week, announcing the Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson would mark his 2009 debut, “is my bones aren’t moving anymore.


“It’s a very comforting feeling hitting a golf ball without your bones sliding all over the place,” Woods added. “That’s been very exciting to play that way, and I’m looking forward to the season.”


He is not the only one.


Woods has been called golf’s one-man, economic-stimulus package, but how much he pockets, let alone the windfall he brings everybody else, was never much of a motivation. The only standard Woods measures himself against is himself, and the eight months off has made it easy to forget just how good he was.


Playing on one good leg essentially since he ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee jogging at home after the 2007 British Open, Woods was on his longest ever sustained run of excellence. From that day in August through the U.S. Open, he won nine times in 12 official tournaments around the world and finished no worse than fifth in the other three.


The four years he invested with instructor Hank Haney were just beginning to pay the huge dividends they both envisioned. Woods’ understanding of his own golf swing, always a strength, had reached the point where he was confident enough to make adjustments in the middle of a round, even between shots if he desired. He’d already dialed up his short game, throttled back his swing to take pressure off the knee and still was hitting the ball more consistently than ever.


Woods still has all that, plus a full range of motion again and a new driver to boot.


“Expectations with him are off the chart,” Haney said. “You would think that people would cut him a little slack for a couple of weeks. But I’m sure it will start right in.”


The story of young Tiger taping a list of Jack Nicklaus’ accomplishments to his bedroom wall, and then beating him to every one, is well known. In that sense, Woods is a victim of his own success. He wouldn’t have it any other way. So much so that Woods did little to dampen speculation that he will pick up right where he left off.


“I’m as curious as you. Getting out and competing again, I haven’t done that in a while. Hopefully, I can get into the flow of the round very quickly,” he told reporters.


Granted, coming back for a match-play event seems to provide a cushion, since Woods doesn’t have to post a number against the field at the end of each day, just play well enough to beat one opponent at a time. On the other hand, Woods could wind up playing 126 holes during the week, and as many as 72 on the weekend if he goes all the way to the finale.


That didn’t worry him, either.


“I’d like to have that problem,” he laughed, then turned serious a moment later and made clear he fully expected to. That despite the fact Woods has yet to complete 18 holes in any of his practice rounds, something very few people outside his inner circle even know.


Not that it will make a difference, either.


“Nothing changes. It’s to win. So that’s my intent,” Woods added, “to go in there and win.”


That isn’t good news for the handful of players who took advantage of his absence, Padraig Harrington and young guns Anthony Kim and Camillo Villegas, nor a few of the old hands who were expected to. Familiar rival Phil Mickelson looked like he was preparing for Woods’ return by nearly blowing a 4-shot lead in the final round of the Northern Trust Open, but recovered over the final three holes to post a win.


“I’ll take a lot out of this,” Mickelson said.


Here’s hoping he does.


Lefty and all his colleagues know the cat has been away. Australian Brendan Jones will be placed in front of Woods on the first tee Thursday, and if Tiger gives him the bum rush, look out. Everybody wondered whether marriage and kids would slow Woods, and just like knee surgery, it seems to have had the opposite effect.


We started tracking Woods’ progress when he was so young that it’s hard to believe that kid turned 33 in December and is about to begin his 13th season on the tour. He probably won’t play a full schedule for more than seven or eight years.


Truth be told, Woods could have come back even sooner, but decided to hang around the house a few weeks to spend time with his daughter and newborn son. For a guy itching to get back, that should tell you something about his readiness.


“The feeling of adrenaline, the rush of competing and playing again,” Woods said, “all that I haven’t done in a while.”



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