<
>

Woods dominates early for win in return

2/26/2009 - Golf Tiger Woods

MARANA, Ariz. -- It was business as usual.

After 254 days away from the competitive scene, after nearly six months without hitting a golf ball, after enduring countless days of agony after reconstructive knee surgery, Tiger Woods returned Wednesday and it felt as though he'd never left.

To him and to us.

He knocked it stiff at the first hole for a birdie, did so again at the second for a conceded eagle and never looked back in his first-round encounter with Brendan Jones at the Accenture Match Play Championship.

A 3 and 2 victory over the overmatched Aussie seemed to be a foregone conclusion, and Woods had a relatively stress-free return to the PGA Tour at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club.

"It felt like nothing changed," said Woods, who made a rock-star-like entrance to the first tee, where fans greeted him with "Welcome back" chants. "Walking down the fairway, and it felt like business as usual. Go out there, I thought I would be more nervous on that first tee, but when it comes right down to it. … it just came back down to just playing the game again, and that felt good."

To summarize: He had not played a competitive round of golf since June 16, the day he defeated Rocco Mediate in a playoff to capture the U.S. Open, his 14th major championship and his 65th PGA Tour title.

An arthroscopic procedure two days after the Masters meant he could play no more tournaments before the Open, but unbeknownst to all but his inner circle, Woods played with two stress fractures in his left leg despite doctor's orders to shut it down.

He didn't -- and won anyway. Then had surgery to replace his anterior cruciate ligament, putting him out of action for the rest of the year and leaving the golf world to speculate on how quickly he would return to form.

"I thought it was very good," said Woods' coach, Hank Haney. "I'm always happy as long as he wins. I thought it was good. I'm always confident in Tiger, and I thought he did quite well."

If it all seems like rather ordinary stuff, perhaps that is what Woods wants at this point.

It has been quite the whirlwind of activity the past two weeks. The birth of his son, Charlie, occurred Feb. 8, and all the while he has been preparing to come back, saying it could have been even earlier had the baby situation not interceded.

Some 40,000 tickets were sold by the tournament in the wake of Woods' announcement that he would be playing this week, and his Tuesday practice round was a surreal scene, his first public golf shots in nearly nine months.

When his return to the tour finally began for real Wednesday -- after a brief delay so the Stewart Cink-Richard Sterne match could go extra holes -- hundreds of fans tried to follow in the hot desert, with grandstands filled along the way and spectators lining the ropes, shouting encouragement.

During the long walk between the first green and the second tee, Jones found himself walking with the masses, where he heard somebody remark that just nine more holes were necessary for a 10 and 8 outcome -- which would mean Woods' winning every hole.

"That annoyed me to a point," said Jones, who couldn't have been happy to see Woods float a 5-iron from 235 yards to 4 feet at the second to set up an eagle.

"I've never hit a shot like that, that high and soft," Jones said. "He hits some shots that other people can't hit."

Woods got off to that hot start, then began to show some of the rust that should have been expected. He made three bogeys over his next five holes to drop to just a 1-up lead. But a birdie at the eighth hole gave him a 2-up advantage, and Jones never got closer.

Woods won five holes and lost just two, hitting 8 of 12 fairways, including 6-for-6 when using his 3-wood. He also hit 9 of the 16 greens he played.

"His ball flight is different to pretty much everybody else's, and it was fun to see different trajectories that he hits the ball at," Jones said. "But yeah, he's Tiger; he does freakish stuff. He made two eagles on me, and he just really didn't waste any shots out there."

And in truth, Jones made it easy on Woods. His first birdie of the day didn't come until the 13th hole -- where Woods eagled -- and he continually missed fairways.

Woods will get a much tougher opponent in Thursday's second round, South Africa's Tim Clark. Although Clark has never won on the PGA Tour, he is ranked 32nd in the world and did win the Australian Open last year. Clark defeated countryman Retief Goosen 3 and 2 in the opening round.

With Woods' game in seemingly good shape, the question that will linger concerns his left knee. Although Woods trained vigorously throughout his rehabilitation and drew raves for his game among friends John Cook and Mark O'Meara at their home club at Isleworth, walking was not much of the process. He played most of his golf in Florida out of a cart.

So some soreness and recovery time can be expected as Woods works his way back.

"I'm sure that's going to be a little while," Woods said. "But I'm very pleased at how it felt all day. I thought it would be more stiff on the 15th tee when I had to hit my shot after that long wait. But I felt fine."

It was a day that was anything but ordinary, but in Woods' case, it seemed rather routine.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.