MARANA (Arizona): Tiger Woods pulled into the parking lot as sunlight began to filter across the desert floor. He ducked into the clubhouse to change into golf shoes and headed out for a practice round, a routine he has followed for a dozen years.
For a moment, it didn’t seem as though he had been gone from golf for the last eight months recovering from knee surgery.
“It feels the same. Nothing feels any different,” Woods said, recalling a conversation with his wife on Tuesday morning. “Just because it feels like I’m coming back to what I used to do.”
But there was one change that brought so much satisfaction. Standing on the first tee at Dove Mountain, he drew back his 3-wood and sent the ball soaring against the Arizona sky, his swing looking just as good as it did that Monday in June at San Diego when he won the U.S. Open in a play-off.
Only this time he didn’t wince. He didn’t stoop over and clutch his left leg. He didn’t have to use his club for a cane. Nothing hurt.
“I feel great,” Woods said. “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.”
He was about an hour late for his press conference, but he had a good excuse. It was his first time walking 18 holes since the U.S. Open, and “I forgot how long it takes,” said Woods, who has been riding a cart at home.
Woods does not know what to expect from his game when the Accenture Match Play Championship begins on Wednesday, mainly because there is sure to be rust. He has not competed since surgery to rebuild ligaments in his left knee the week after the U.S. Open.
“I’ve played one tournament in 10 months,” Woods said. “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. I’m trying to get into the rhythm of the round as fast as I possibly can. “And hopefully, it will happen quickly for me.”
His first-round opponent is Brendan Jones, an Australian Woods has never met. Woods is the defending champion, which means nothing in this fickle format. It doesn’t matter what score he shoots, as long as he wins more holes than his opponent.
“You have to be on your game right away,” he said. “You have to make sure you bring the intensity and bring your game from the very first hole. Because if you don’t, then I’ll be going home.”
The intensity might come from the circus around him. Even if Woods felt like his drive to The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club was just like going to the office, it soon was clear this week will be different. About 50 photographers were waiting at the entrance of the practice range, and a dozen of them camped on the slope behind where Woods set up to hit balls.
The only other player on the range was Phil Mickelson, who won two days ago at the Northern Trust Open and virtually was ignored. “As I’m walking to the range, I’ve never seen so many cameras, especially that early in the morning,” Mickelson said.
Woods played alone, followed by swing coach Hank Haney, agent Mark Steinberg and spokesman Glenn Greenspan.
“He looked great,” Haney said. “I’m very pleased with how he did today. It’s slowly coming around, and he’s getting more consistent. His knee is not flopping all over the place. It’s nice to see him not in pain, not hurt when he’s playing.”
Haney said Woods was hurting when the won the Match Play for the third time last year. Woods tried to take care of his wounded knee with surgery to clean out cartilage after the Masters, but the ACL already was gone. And then came a double stress fracture of the tibia while practicing for the U.S. Open.
Woods believes he had only 20% of his ACL about five years ago, none since stepping in a hole while jogging after the British Open in 2007. “I feel a lot stronger in my left leg,” Woods said. “Both legs have been stronger than they ever have been. Stability is something I haven’t had in years. So it’s nice to make a swing and not have my bones move. ... It’s nice to hit into it for the first time.”
In the last few weeks, he said he would go to the range at home in Florida while Charlie, born on Feb. 8, was asleep. His wife, Elin, would call when the child woke up, and Woods would head back to the house.
His family was in Florida, and Woods said this week would be a time for him to catch up on sleep. That’s one incentive to win matches.
“I’m looking forward to the rush tomorrow. I really am,” Woods said. “Waking up tomorrow, and getting ready for my round, and getting focused, and coming out here, warming up and getting fired up. I’m really looking forward to that more than anything else. Because I haven’t had that in a long time.” - AP