Tiger Woods played a practice round early Tuesday morning.
Fred Vuich/SI
By Gary Van Sickle
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

MARANA, Ariz. — Tigermania was back in full force Tuesday morning at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, where about a hundred writers, photographers and media types convened at the crack of dawn for a practice round.

The hysteria surrounding his return makes it clear that the public, the media and the game itself have been going through withdrawal pains ever since Woods was sidelined after his triumphant U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines.

How else to explain the huge posse of writers, photographers and cameramen milling around the practice range and the clubhouse at 6:15, with nary a sign of a desert sunrise over the mountains to the east? We were all there waiting for Woods, as if this practice round would somehow herald the return of hope, save golf and halt the recession.

As the sky began to brighten, with the faint scent of mesquite in the air, the scene took an ironic twist. The first man to walk out of the clubhouse and run the gauntlet of waiting media to the range wasn't Woods. It was Jim (Bones) Mackay, Phil Mickelson's caddie. He appeared stunned by the gathering but managed a smile when two reporters gave him mock applause. He was soon followed by Mickelson, who is not best friends with Tiger, but who had already bumped into Steve Williams, Tiger's caddie, in the clubhouse parking lot. They shared a handshake, which was interesting in itself given their history.

A little after 7, Woods led what turned into a procession to the range. He wore gray slacks with a gray vest over a white shirt lined with blue and black stripes. Woods began warming up on the right side of the range. On the left side, Mickelson was hitting balls and working on his swing with instructor Butch Harmon, who used to be Tiger's coach. After eight months away from the game, the two men Woods encountered in his first moments back at a PGA Tour site were Phil and Butch. What were the odds?

Woods warmed up quickly on the range, wasting little time. After an assortment of iron shots, he pulled out a 3-wood and made a swing. He hit badly behind the ball, a low-chunk hook, proving that he is, indeed, human. A sour look came over his face and he looked away before leaning the 3-wood against the bag and grabbing his driver. He launched several massive drives, then he and Williams headed for the first tee. The shooters, who flanked both sides of the range and had clambered for positions in the grandstands, scurried after him.

Shortly after 7:15, Woods launched a tee shot down the first fairway, christening his return, and away he went, followed by his media army and only a handful of fans. He played alone, perhaps not wishing to subject any other players to the media circus he must have known was inevitable.

Woods had a blank expression on his face. He'd be pretty good at poker, I think. I might be reading too much into this, but he didn't seem enthused about the situation. He looked almost resigned to having a practice round without any privacy, with shutter clicks echoing around him like falling dominoes after every swing. For a guy who was going to get only one look at this course before Wednesday's match, it wasn't an ideal way to prepare.

His first iron shot landed past the pin and bounced hard, releasing to the back edge of the green. Woods had a bemused expression about the green's apparent firmness. He didn't finish out the hole, or any of the holes. Instead, he hit a few chips, and he putted to places where he expects the pins to be located later this week.

The third hole is a 200-plus-yard par 3 with an angled green guarded by bunkers front and back and by a large holding pond on the right. Woods hit a shot at the flag that came up short. He walked to his ball with a wedge, carefully positioned himself above a large protruding rock and chipped on without hesitation. Then he played a pair of shots from the right greenside bunker. Williams rolled the balls back toward the front of the green, where Tiger hit a pair of pitch shots. He holed the second one, getting a smattering of applause from several spectators.

Woods hit a pair of tee shots at the fourth hole, on the far end of the property where the course turns from its westward, downhill slope toward the valley and heads north toward the Tortolita Mountains. One tee shot was a layup, another was an attempt to see if the green might be drivable from a forward tee. A pair of policemen pedaled bicycles on the cart path left of the hole as Woods began walking up the fairway.

On the fifth tee, Woods yelled, "In my swing!" as he finished his follow-through on his drive, chiding photographers for clicking their shutters prematurely. It's the kind of thing he expects in the fourth round of a tournament, not in a practice round. Woods re-loaded and hit a second tee shot down the fairway. He flagged his approach shot but it landed short of the pin and spun back onto a lower tier.

The sixth hole is a par 3 guarded by a truly cavernous bunker in front. Woods stiffed an iron shot that landed perfectly on the front edge and got close to the hole. Guys would pay a lot of money for that shot later this week. He didn't putt it out.

By the time he reached the eighth tee, fans were beginning to pour in. The size of his gallery nearly doubled. A full grandstand of spectators awaited his approach to the ninth green.

His iron game appeared in good shape. He didn't seem that pleased with his tee shots, and it was hard to tell from the sound which ones were good. It appeared that he hit several of them a little high on the clubface, and more than once his expression seemed to say, "Good miss." Still, his pitch shots around the green were frequently exquisite. You're the first to know — this guy is still good.

It's difficult to tell whether Woods is ready to win. He admitted last week that he is as curious about that as the rest of us. His game looks competitive, and it probably won't hurt that his first-round opponent, little-known Australian Brendan Jones, is in the middle of a three-month golf hiatus.

What about Tiger's knee? He wasn't limping. Last year at this tournament, he was clearly working hard to disguise a limp. This morning, he walked with a slightly different, measured gait. Almost as if he was being careful, or conserving energy.

Tiger is ready enough, and the Tiger Era will finally resume tomorrow afternoon against Jones.

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