Tiger eagerly awaits Wednesday return

Updated: February 20, 2009, 9:57 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

Through his rehabilitation of his surgically repaired knee and the various stages of getting his golf game back in shape, Tiger Woods had two tournaments pegged as the most likely places for his return to the PGA Tour.

Were it not for the timing of the birth of his second child, Woods said Friday, he could have come back earlier than next week's Accenture Match Play Championship, where he will play for the first time in more than eight months.

"It was either going to be Match Play or Doral," Woods said in a conference call with golf writers, his first public comments since his return was announced Thursday. "It depends on how I was recovering and the birth of our child. The timing of that determined when I was going to play. It was basically going to be one of those two tournaments.

"As I was practicing and getting ready, that was sort of my timetable. And with Charlie coming on time, my practice schedule being very positive … I thought this was the time to get back and play again."

Woods, 33, has not played since his U.S. Open victory in a playoff over Rocco Mediate on June 16 at Torrey Pines, where he was in obvious pain from a ruptured anterior crucial ligament in his left knee as well as two stress fractures in his tibia. That was his 14th major title and 65th PGA Tour victory and capped an abbreviated season that saw him win five of his seven starts around the world.

It's one thing to do it in a practice environment against some buddies for a little bit of cash. It's a different deal in a PGA Tour event against the best players in the world. I'm looking forward to the challenge and experiencing that excitement again.

-- Tiger Woods

Eight days later, Woods had season-ending surgery to replace his ACL, and did not begin hitting golf balls again until December.

But gradually, he built himself back up to the point that he has been playing and practicing regularly -- and drawing raves from some of his practice partners.

"He will look bigger because he's worked out a ton," said John Cook, a friend and fellow pro who played with Woods on Tuesday at Isleworth near Orlando. "He hasn't been able to run like he used to. That's how he stayed so lean. But as far as making every swing you can off every single lie that you've got, he's tested it. He's tested it all day, and his recovery time the next day has been fine. I don't see him favoring anything."

Woods said he did have some concerns.

"Whether or not my game is sharp," he said, "it's one thing to do it in a practice environment against some buddies for a little bit of cash. It's a different deal in a PGA Tour event against the best players in the world. I'm looking forward to the challenge and experiencing that excitement again."

Woods will return at a tournament he has won three times, including last year. But the tournament has moved to a brand-new course in Tucson, Ariz., the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain. And nothing is guaranteed. Woods could be eliminated after the first round or advance all the way to the weekend, when the possibility of walking 36 holes a day exists.

"I'd like to have that problem," he said.

Woods is aware of suggestions that the game faces serious problems without him and that his return is welcomed, even by his rivals. Television ratings and interest waned during his absence despite Padraig Harrington's winning two major championships and young stars such as Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas emerging.

"The only thing I can control is my play, and we as a collective whole as the PGA Tour have to do a better job of making sure we appreciate all the fans and sponsors for what they do for us and allow us to compete and play for a living," Woods said. "Reality has certainly checked us."

With the worldwide economy continuing its downturn, Woods was able to secure a new sponsor after he and Buick mutually agreed to end their endorsement agreement a year early this past December. AT&T -- which already had a relationship with Woods as a sponsor of the PGA Tour event he hosts in Washington, D.C. -- will adorn his golf bag this season

Despite having played and practiced every day for most of the past two months, Woods said he is unsure whether his game will be rusty.

"I'm as curious as you, too," he said. "Getting out there and competing again, the rush of competing again … I haven't done that in a while. Hopefully I can get into the flow of a round quickly. And in match play, each hole is an individual match. It pays to get off to a quick start."

Although Woods mentioned Doral -- the CA Championship, which begins March 12 in Miami -- as another possible place for his return, he said his schedule is uncertain beyond the Match Play.

"The frustrating thing is I haven't been able to make out my schedule like I normally do," Woods said. "I have to take this tournament by tournament. I don't know how this thing is going to behave in a competitive environment. It's one of the things I'm looking forward to testing."

As for his expectations, Woods left little doubt there.

"Nothing changes from every tournament I enter -- it's to win,'' Woods said. "That's my intent, to go in there and win. Nothing has ever changed.''

Bob Harig is a golf writer for ESPN.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com