'That's what I've missed – the rush,' says Tiger
World No 1 tees off in the WGC Match Play today expecting to come back with a roar
Wednesday 25 February 2009
Thirteen years ago, on signing his maiden professional contract, Tiger Woods sat in a press conference and famously announced "Hello world". Here, yesterday it was a case of, "Hello world, I'm back." But if his first introduction had been endearing in its exuberance, then this reintroduction was chilling in its confidence. For his rivals, anyway.
It can only be hoped that, for his sake, Brendan Jones was not anywhere in earshot when Woods was asked whether, apart from the 2006 US Open at Winged Foot when his father had just passed away, he had ever turned up at any other tournament not 100 per cent ready, not thinking he was going to win.
"No, that the was the only one," he replied. The implication was clear; Woods expects to win here. And poor Jones just happens to be first in the firing line.
Today at 12.02pm local time, the unheralded Australian will tee it up against Woods in the first round of the WGC Match Play and if he looks across he will initially see an opponent who has not played a competitive round for eight months and who has spent this time recovering from knee reconstruction. But if Jones looks closer he may recognise the fire in Woods's eyes. Tiger, the most competitive animal golf has ever known, truly will be back in his natural habitat.
"That is what I'm most looking forward to about tomorrow – the rush," said Woods. "I've missed getting on that first tee and feeling it, I really have. I want to wake up tomorrow, get ready for my round and get fired up for my match against Brendan. I'm really looking forward to that more than anything else because I haven't had that in a long time."
Yet if Woods has yearned for competitive golf then competitive golf has yearned for Woods more. Surely that much can have been deduced by the extraordinary reaction to the news of his return. And if it has not then any doubters should head directly to Dove Mountain, Arizona and the scene of the most talked about comeback the game has ever witnessed.
To say the hype here in this build-up has been overstated is an understatement. At least the thousands who turned up yesterday actually got to see Woods. On Monday the crowd was left squinting in the desert, their Tiger thirst remaining unquenched as the world No 1 chose to delay his first practice round. Still, the waiting was worth it when Woods finally showed up and staggered with his swagger.
Granted, the gates were not yet open when he teed off a little while after the sun had risen, but old habits die hard and he did have his faithful entourage of media to accompany him, even if the galleries were being kept on their blocks. Maybe, it was an illusion but there seemed to be more of Woods's peers milling around than there would normally be at this unearthly hour. One of them, Phil Mickelson, was stunned by the circus he encountered.
"It's pretty evident to see today what he has done for the game of golf," said Mickelson, fresh off his own return to the big time having ended months of mediocrity with victory at Riviera on Sunday.
"You know, I've come here for a Tuesday practice round and as I'm walking to the range I've never seen so many cameras, photographers and so forth. Particularly that early in the morning."
His re-acclimatisation with the competitive fairways evidently went well for Woods, although he did joke, "I'd forgotten how long it takes to walk 18 holes." In truth, the 33-year-old has recently spurned the buggy in his practice rounds at home in Florida as he has tried to recreate the conditions of competition. Woods, however, was always aware that there would be no substitute for the real thing – and that will not come until today.
"Being tournament ready is just having rounds under your belt and I've played one tournament in 10 months," he explained. "Yeah, I've simulated tournaments as best as I can, but it's hard to get the adrenalin up to where it will be tomorrow. The biggest thing will just be trying to get into the rhythm of the round quickly and get into the flow.
"That happens instantly when you are tournament-honed and, hopefully, it will happen quickly for me. Obviously, the matchplay format helps because it is like playing the final round of a tournament from the very first hole of the first match. I'll have to make sure that I bring that intensity and have my game from the start. Because if you don't, you'll be going home."
Nobody is expecting Woods to go home, at least not until the weekend at the very earliest. That conviction only grew on hearing him talk with such purpose yesterday.
He did lower his game-stare long enough to admit that his enforced absence "had been a blessing in disguise" as he reflected on spending so much quality time with his young family that increased by one with the arrival of Charlie Axel a fortnight ago. But now he is back at the office and, in his mind, he has improved.
"With my golf swing I'm doing the same things I've been trying to do for years," he said. "But now I have a leg I can do them on.
"My practice sessions have been going really well and I feel healthy. I feel a lot stronger in my leg, both legs are a lot stronger than they've ever been, and it's nice to make a swing and not feel my bones move. It's nice to be able to hit into the ball for the first time."
What that means for the other professionals borders on the unthinkable. Welcome back, Tiger.
In the eye of the Tiger: Round-by-round guide to potential rivals in Woods' way
James Corrigan predicts the players Woods may have to face to prevail this week:
FIRST ROUND (Today)
Rarely has an Australian seemed so resigned to defeat. The player ranked No 64 in the world is largely unknown and is undoubtedly under-rated having recorded eight victories on the Japan Tour. Nevertheless, this is a different kettle of sushi. Jones yesterday called the draw "a dream come true". Worst nightmares come true as well.
SECOND ROUND (Tomorrow)
How Retief will wish he did not decide to break a habit of a career and say something of interest the day after Tiger's victory in last year's US Open. First, Goosen dares to suggest Woods was faking those grimaces at Torrey Pines. Then, 12 hours later, Woods announces he will be out for the rest of the year. Now, eight months later it is Retief's turn for contorted expressions.
THIRD ROUND (Friday)
The youngest player ever to enter the world's top 20 (yep, Tiger included) has been attracting the grandest of compliments as he has piled the substance on to all that potential. Mark O'Meara, Tiger's best friend, even went so far as to say that Rory at 19 is better than Woods at 19. The trouble for the Ulster boy is that Tiger is now 33.
QUARTER-FINAL (Saturday am)
Oh joy for Tiger, another South African who has been less than respectful and deserves a good thrashing. The thing is, Woods actually quite likes Retief; he despises Rory. Yes, he will step on to that first tee, peer across at the dolt who once declared "Tiger is as beatable as ever", and say to himself, "Ah, this is what I've been missing". Thereafter, a vengeful Tiger will be as unbeatable as ever.
SEMI-FINAL (Saturday pm)
Will Phil, as golfing etiquette dictates, shake the hand of Steve Williams on the first tee? Or will Phil, as all other etiquette dictates, shake Tiger's caddie by the throat for calling him a "prick" at a public event a few months ago? Just one delicious sub-plot in a collision that would surely rank right up there with golf's most notable encounters.
FINAL (Sunday am, pm, 36 holes)
Whether or not Tiger agrees with the rankings it is doubtful he recognises the little Spaniard he has always found rather annoying as the biggest threat to his hegemony. But one thing is certain. Woods would see it as one almighty statement to crush the player who made the biggest in-roads in his absence. Guys, the respite is over.
Tucson tee times
2.36pm (GMT) L Westwood (Eng) v P Marksaeng (Thai)
3.04pm KJ Choi (S Kor) v O Wilson (Eng)
3.42pm P Casey (Eng) v A Baddeley (Aus)
3.52pm P Mickelson (US) v A Cabrera (Arg)
4.01pm Z Johnson (US) v G McDowell (N Irl)
5.46pm R McIlroy (N Irl) v L Oosthuizen (SA)
6.05pm J Rose (Eng) v B Weekley (US)
6.33pm B Curtis (US) v L Donald (Eng)
6.43pm P Harrington (Irl) v P Perez (US)
6.52pm R Allenby (Aus) v R Fisher (Eng)
7.02pm T Woods (US) v B Jones (Aus)
7.21pm S Garcia (Sp) v C Schwartzel (SA)
7.30pm I Poulter (Eng) v JM Singh (Ind)
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