Tiger's Back

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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 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 Torrey Pines
when he won the U.S. Open in a playoff.

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 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 Torrey Pines.

"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 Riviera 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 figures he had only 20 percent of his ACL some 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

Woods doesn't watch a lot of golf on TV, but he knows what has
transpired during his absence.

He remains No. 1 in the world ranking, although the gap has
closed from an 11.33-point margin over Mickelson to a 1.74-point
lead over Sergio Garcia.

Padraig Harrington won the British Open and PGA Championship,
meaning the Irishman will go to the Masters with a chance to join
Woods and Ben Hogan as the only players to win three straight
majors. Once considered young, the 33-year-old Woods has noticed
the next generation making its move, from Anthony Kim to Camilo
Villegas, from Rory McIlroy to Dustin Johnson.

None of it made him eager to return.

He spent the last eight months chasing around his 20-month-old
daughter, Sam, and waiting on the Feb. 8 birth of his son, Charlie.

"It was a blessing in disguise to have an opportunity just to
see Sam grow that fast and that much," he said. "As players, you
travel so much that I would have missed a lot of that. So I was
very lucky there."

In the last few weeks, he said he would go to the range at home
in Florida while Charlie was asleep. His wife, Elin, would call
when the child woke up, and Woods would head back to the house.

His family is in Florida, and Woods said this week would be a
time 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."