Woods feels strong going into '09 debut
MARANA, Ariz. -- The typical dawn patrol practice round started a tad later than normal, and lasted a little longer, too. Tiger Woods is often long gone before the masses arrive on the day before a tournament, but of course, this isn't just any tournament.
The WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship begins Wednesday, and Woods is returning to competitive golf for the first time since his victory at the U.S. Open.
The event is being played at a new venue, so there was some extra care taken on the greens. Even so, playing by himself amid a horde of media and spectators (who weren't admitted until 7:30 a.m. local time, 14 minutes after he started), it took nearly four hours, meaning Woods was not even close to arriving on time for a scheduled news conference at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club.
"Sorry I'm late," he said. "I forgot how long it takes to play 18 holes walking."
Perhaps. But he didn't forget how to hit a golf ball.
To say Woods is impressive always risks understatement, but given his long absence since surgery to replace his anterior cruciate ligament in June, you would be hard-pressed not to notice how good he looked.
That doesn't mean he will win this tournament or even beat his first-round opponent, Australia's Brendan Jones. But it certainly bodes well for Woods as he progresses through the 2009 season.
"I was very pleased with how he did today," said Woods' swing coach, Hank Haney. "I'm always concerned with how Tiger is hitting it, concerned with how his swing is tomorrow. That's my job. You only feel as good as the last day and today was good. Even though it's Tiger Woods, it doesn't hurt to have a nice practice round and get some confidence."
Actually, the key phrase is "It doesn't hurt." That is what Woods said about his left knee, which bothered him for the past two years much more than he ever let on. Haney said Woods was in considerable pain while winning this tournament a year ago, and it only got worse as he captured the Arnold Palmer Invitational before a fifth-place finish at the CA Championship and a second at the Masters.
Woods had arthroscopic surgery two days after the Masters, a procedure meant to get him through the end of the year. But when he suffered stress fractures in the same left leg while rehabbing the knee injury, he knew while hobbling around Torrey Pines that it would be his last tournament.
"Stability is something I haven't had in years," Woods said. "So it's nice to make a swing and not have my -- as I've said before -- my bones move. Since I had no ACL for a number of years, no matter what I did, it was always moving.
"So I would try and hit into my left side, but the more I did it, the more it would move. So one of the reasons why you saw me jumping off the ball is to get off that leg. It's nice to be able to hit into it for the first time."
There has been considerable speculation about Woods' swing. Would it change? How would that affect his game?
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Only the most seasoned of golf swing analysts would be able to detect a difference -- if there is one -- in real time. Woods looks stronger and his swing is as powerful as ever. He hit all the shots Wednesday, and Haney said his short game is probably better because for a time during his rehab, that is all Woods could do.
"As far as my golf swing, I'm doing the same things I've been trying to do, but now I have a leg I can do it on," Woods said. "I feel great. I didn't think it would feel this good before the surgery or even just after the surgery because I hadn't known what it's like to feel this way. It's been so long. So to have it feel this healthy and this solid and secure, man, it's a great feeling."
"I think he's more stable," Haney said. "His knee is not flapping all over the place. It's nice to see him not in so much pain. Nice to see him be able to practice. He couldn't practice before. He was hurting so bad even when he was playing. I can't think those things can do anything but help. He hasn't hit a practice ball after a round since the British Open at Carnoustie [in 2007.] Now when he needs to, he can go to the range after a round and practice. That's got to be a good thing."
Woods' comeback has been likened to the one made by Ben Hogan in 1950, although there is a considerable difference. Hogan was near death after a Feb. 2, 1949, automobile accident and spent nearly two months in the hospital. Doctors said he might not walk again after suffering, among other things, a double fracture of the pelvis, a fractured collarbone and a fractured left ankle, as well as blood clots.
Hogan returned 11 months after the accident and amazingly finished second at the Los Angeles Open. Five months later, he won his second U.S. Open. Woods' comeback is not nearly as dramatic, despite its importance to the game.
"There was no doubt I'd get back," Woods said. "Discouragement, yeah, there's plenty of that, especially the first few months. Anyone who's ever been through an ACL reconstruction, they'll attest to it. It's not a whole lot of fun. But once you start feeling a little bit more explosive and a little more secure in the leg and the movements start coming back, yeah, you start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel."
As for being tournament-ready, Woods admits that is still a work in progress.
"It's rounds under your belt and I haven't had that for a while," he said. "I've played one tournament in 10 months. I've had plenty of rounds. I've simulated tournaments the best I possibly can, but it's hard to get the adrenaline up to where it's going to be tomorrow when I play."
Woods, who is seeded No. 1 in the tournament based on his world ranking, will face the 64th-ranked player in Jones, who lives in Australia and plays the Japan Tour, where he has eight career victories.
In his one Accenture Match Play appearance, Jones lost in the first round to Adam Scott. Jones played the PGA Tour in 2005, but was unable to keep his card. Clearly, he does not run in the same circles as Woods, who was asked if he knew anything about his opponent.
"Well, he's an Aussie," Woods said. "I don't know a lot. I know he's played out here before, and that's about it."
They have never met, but Woods was told by a questioner that the two had nearly bumped into each other walking into the locker room at a tournament in Thailand. Did Woods remember?
"You're really stretching it, aren't you?" Woods said, laughing.
They will meet soon enough, and once through the pleasantries on the first tee, the long wait for Woods' return will be complete.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
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