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First day back: Tiger Woods wins as the world watches again

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McClatchy Tribune
February 26, 2009
— If you listen to Tiger Woods’ words, and those of his swing coach, we are about to witness the apex of an already legendary career. The body is finally at full operational capacity again, matching a mind that defeats some opponents before the first tee.

Yes, Tiger has a new knee and the same old confidence — but even the best among us have occasional doubts.


Tiger’s came late Wednesday afternoon, when a backup at the Accenture Match Play Championship created a 22-minute delay on the 15th tee. Consider this the first real test for the surgically enhanced Tiger. There is nothing to do on a tee box delay other than drink Gatorade and worry about your body.


Later, Tiger would admit to expecting his brand-new knee to stiffen after 14 holes and near half-hour wait. Except he went ahead and drove a 3-wood 340-some yards to the green —15 feet or so from the pin.


“He missed it,” joked Tim Clark, watching nearby. “He must be a bit rusty.”


Clark could joke then, but not after Tiger beat Brendan Jones 3&2 in his first competitive round of golf since massive knee surgery eight months ago.


Clark, you see, is up next in trying to knock off the brand-new, same-old Tiger in this match play event—set to tee off late this morning at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club.


Tiger Woods’ first big swing actually came a few minutes before his round. He put a tee into the practice green, lined it up, and smashed a ball in the direction of the driving range.


That’ll get you kicked out of a public course. It got Tiger an ovation.


He went birdie-eagle on the first two holes, so the ovations only grew.


The golf world is Tiger’s again, and we’re back to watching it.


“Thanks Tiger!” someone yelled.


“I’ve waited here four hours to see you!” screamed someone else.


“I feel sorry for that Jones fella,” said a bearded man smoking a cigar.


Lost in the hoopla is the fact that if Tiger and his swing coach Hank Haney are to be believed about this version being even better than the one that won 14 majors, we haven’t seen it yet.


Tiger was as sharp as he needed to be to beat Jones, which wasn’t much, mixing three bogies with three birdies and an eagle. He fist-pumped after sticking a 238-yard approach to three feet on No. 2, and three holes later unleashed a string of obscenities when he put one in the bunker.


Golf’s one-man stimulus plan is working for at least this week, helping the sport take advantage of the lull before March Madness and baseball’s opening day. But all he’s done so far is beat a middle-of-the-road pro in a match play event with less than his best.


He’ll need to be better. Medicine says he will.


Athletes routinely come back from ACL surgery within a year, but the common wisdom among surgeons is that the knee isn’t fully recovered for 12 to 18 months.


Tiger was shy about using his driver, taking it out of the bag only twice. He was erratic much of the day, most often missing to the right.


Consider the inability for even Tiger’s millions to replicate a tournament atmosphere at home, and there’s probably some truth to Clark’s joke, the one about Tiger being “a bit rusty.”


That has to be a daunting proposition for the other players on tour.


Before they played, Jones joked that he’d bet the house on Tiger. Clark isn’t quite as flip, but still prepared for what you probably think is inevitable.


“I live up in Scottsdale,” Clark says, “so I’m prepared to get in my car and go home whenever I need to.”


Tiger’s power is there again. The first time he pulled out a driver it went some 336 yards, straight down the middle of the fairway.


There is an audible impact when club meets ball, one that an observer described “like a man getting punched in the face.” When the ball shoots out, you can hear it cut through the air, even from 30 feet away.


Fans are falling over themselves to catch a glimpse, of course. Dozens stood outside the portable toilet on No. 11 when Woods stepped in. Hundreds more shouted niceties at Woods, the sight of the world’s most famous athlete turning grown men into babbling fools who can only shout out, “Tiger Tiger Woods y’all!”


You won’t get anything from Tiger, though.


Not a wave on the course, not a hat-tip after a good shot. If his game is rusty, his concentration is not. This is the same Tiger, an assassin’s nerve and a CIA agent’s willingness to introspect.


He will tell you he’s confident he can win, that his short game is the best it’s ever been, a product of a bum knee limiting his big swings for eight months.


And that’s about it.


The rest of golf’s best story you’ll have to see for yourself. Every good narrative has some mystery.


Or maybe there is foreshadowing in the words of Woods’ swing coach.


“It’s nice to see him be able to practice,” Haney says. “He wasn’t able to practice before. That can’t do anything but help.”



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