Tiger back on prowl to leave Jones trailing in desert dust

Returning world No 1 shows glimpses of his best game in comfortable win
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The Independent Online

It was not the rout that the world and his mixed foursomes partner had predicted and he was not quite the returning superhuman who shrugged off eight months of inactivity to produce his very best. But Tiger Woods still found a way to win his first round of the WGC Accenture World Match Play here last night. And in that sense it indeed seemed as if he had never been away.

Still, the sponsors, the TV networks, the fans and anybody else with a vested interest in the Woods comeback amounting to rather more than a good workout should pay thanks to Brendan Jones. Despite a heroic eagle on the par-four 15th which kept the match alive, the unheralded Australian was, in truth, on the uninspired side of mediocre in his 3&2 defeat and, in hindsight, will surely reflect on missing a chance to ruin the script. However, he was just about worthy of his 16 holes of fame. "Losing 3&2 to Woods, well I've got to be happy with that," said Jones.

The victor, meanwhile, was somewhat more understandably satisfied. "I felt good," said the defending champion. "There were some loose irons in the middle of the round but otherwise I was pleased. I got off to a quick start."

Quick? Try lightning. It was with one faultless swing of a three-wood that Woods returned to competition. And four faultless swings later he was three-under after two holes and two-up on the startled Jones. But then, showing the rustiness caused by his long absence, Woods bogeyed three of the next five and Jones was only one down. The rank outsider would certainly have taken that scoreline after one of the most eagerly-awaited tee-shots in the game's history.

It was 12.09pm when Woods finally hit his first meaningful drive since last June's US Open win and the ensuing knee reconstruction. That was seven minutes later than planned but the delay only served to crank up the tension around the first tee. A thousand fans packed in and one of their number set the tone by screaming. "You're back, Tiger. You are so back."

How Woods managed to connect with ball in this atmosphere was a wonder in itself to the uninitiated; but the fact that he hit it into the perfect part of the fairway made even the experts who know him best shake their heads in amazement. From there he struck a six-iron to four feet and duly holed the putt. He was off. And the gallery alongside were running. Afterwards, Woods described how he remained impervious to the frenzy going on all around him. "You know, it's funny, I said to Stevie [Williams, his caddie] that it just felt like business as usual," he said. "I thought I'd be more nervous."

His second hole was, if anything, yet more chilling in its calculated magnificence – nailed drive, sumptuous four-iron to five feet, putt conceded for the eagle. This was too easy and all too tough on Jones, the player ranked 63 places below him, but seemingly a million leagues below. He was desperate for respite and, against all the odds being posted, he got it when the rhythm deserted Woods and took with it the accuracy of his irons.

Suddenly, Tiger was scrambling and the pragmatic theory emerged that even this immortal may just need to regain his match fitness. There was the occasional moment of Woods magic, not least when he holed a 20-foot putt on the 13th for his second eagle. That helped him to be four-under for his last nine holes; a stat that underlined that the new knee had stood up as well as his focus.

Woods's first day back was always going to overshadow every other match in this 64-man shootout. Which was a shame for the English contingent who enjoyed the nation's finest first round in the event's 10-year history. Of the seven who teed it up only Justin Rose lost and then only due to an inspired fight-back by Boo Weekley.

Meanwhile, Phil Mickelson so nearly fell victim to the shock of the round after a fearless comeback from the Argentine Angle Cabrera, who was four down with five remaining but took the world No 3 to the first extra hole. Woods would have noted the Mickelson jitters, although he may have paid more attention to the triumph of the 19-year-old Rory McIlroy.

The boy from Ulster showed no sign of nerves during his first professional round in America as he accounted for the South African Louis Oosthuizen 2&1. If McIlroy can see off Hunter Mahan today and if Woods does the expected to Tim Clark the pair will meet on Friday. A mouth-watering prospect.

* Henrik Stenson yesterday revealed that "a big part" of his savings are invested in the Stanford Financial Group currently under investigation for an alleged $8bn (£5.5bn)fraud. The Swede admitted that he signed a three-year business deal with Stanford last summer and at the same time transferred funds into a bank account.

WGC Match Play (Tucson) Selected first-round results (US, GB or Irl unless stated): L Westwood bt P Marksaeng (Tha) 2 & 1; KJ Choi (Kor) lost to O Wilson 3 & 1; P Casey bt A Baddeley (Aus) 1 up; P Mickelson bt A Cabrera (Arg) 19th hole; Z Johnson bt G McDowell 3 & 1; R McIlroy bt L Oosthuizen (SA) 2 & 1; J Rose (Eng) lost to B Weekley 1 down; B Curtis lost to L Donald 19th hole; T Woods bt B Jones (Aus) 3 & 2; I Poulter bt J Milkha Singh (Ind) 4 & 3.

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Birdies by Lee Westwood in his 2&1 win over Prayad Marksaeng of Thailand in the first round of the WGC Match Play.

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