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Tiger is back, and it’s as if he never left

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Tim Dahlberg
February 26, 2009
— 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 peeled a banana and calmly munched it as he waited for his turn on the first tee.

There were a few butterflies, but only because there always are. The day they go away, Woods says, is probably the day he will finally quit.


But the knee was fine, and the shots on the driving range felt good. An Aussie named Brendan Jones awaited, and Woods knew his opponent’s stomach had to be churning even more.


There couldn’t have been a better day to begin the task of restoring order to the world of golf.


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


The official time was 12:09 p.m. Mountain Standard 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. It had to be because the doctors did their job in 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 that Woods has always brought to the golf course.


He birdied the first hole from 5 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 magestically toward the pin, tracking the entire way, 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 surgically repaired 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, with Jones making it all the way to the 16th hole before losing. But it might have been had Woods not showed a bit of rust on some early iron shots. He made three bogeys on the front nine, one of them coming on the fifth hole when he hit his drive into the rough 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, of course, now has his own little boy, but anyone who thought the recent birth of Charlie Axel might soften him on the course should now be thinking again. Woods talked after the round about how watching the birth of his son 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.


Fans love every minute of it, and it’s easy to see why television ratings for tournaments featuring Woods are double the ones he misses. On this day, they had eyes for only him and basically ignored the fact 31 other matches were 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, the eight-month absence seemed to make his fellow pros realize even more than they did before how their fortunes are so closely aligned with those of Woods. 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 a beating, like the one awaiting Tim Clark going into the next round.


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.



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