MARANA, Ariz. Tiger Woods chose a good week to make his return to golf. Since it moved to the desert three years ago, the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship has been a low-key event in terms of attendance, which has been modest compared to other prominent tournaments and the major championships.
It's a smart move, if nothing else, to get this hysteria over with. And it has been hysteria ever since he announced his return last week. I wasn't the only member of the media staking out the clubhouse, parking lot and first tee at 0-dark-thirty Monday morning, just in case Woods decided to sneak out for one of his dawn-patrol rounds, which he usually finishes just as the first fans are starting to arrive. We were all there, just in case, to report on Tiger's first practice round swing, first hole, first whatever as if this week were somehow his first tournament.
Woods never showed Monday, but at 7:10 a.m. his caddie, Steve Williams, passed me on his way to the first tee. He carried only a yardage book. He went out to chart the course presumably still unseen by Woods and pace off yardages. I followed him around the front nine. Media frenzy? Yeah, I'm following a guy's caddie around a golf course on a Monday morning.
The marshals at the first green were excited about a visit from Tiger's caddie. A volunteer in a cart pulled up and asked the marshals if anybody had come through yet. "Just a couple of caddies," one volunteer said. "Stevie!" said a second volunteer. The first volunteer was holding a camera and taking a snapshot of the group. "Did you get any photos of Williams?" she was asked. "Only 10!" she answered. "I was surprised, Steve looked a lot thinner in person. And grayer."
These are the kinds of distractions that will fade as Woods resumes a more normal schedule. He isn't saying where he'll play, but you'd have to figure Doral will be one the World Golf Championships are easy pickings for him with the fields half the size of regular tour events. They're practically a Tiger annuity. Bay Hill, near his Isleworth home, will likely be another. And then the Masters.
Woods said in a teleconference last week that his return was delayed by the birth of his second child, Charlie. He didn't want to come back until his wife and the baby were comfortable. The longer his absence, the more interest has grown.
This week is also a good choice because of the match play format. If he's rusty, he can afford a few blow-up holes and still be competitive. You make an 8, you only lose one hole. Match play is 18 little tournaments in one. It's more forgiving than stroke play.
Another perk is that he only has to beat one player a day. (Well, until Saturday, when winners of the morning matches square off in the afternoon.) In a stroke play event, he'd have to beat the entire field. Woods has to beat only six opponents to win this week, which is why match play is a poor format to determine the best player but the best format for entertainment value. Every hole means something, and every hole has an outcome.
\nAnd Woods arrives here with a built-in alibi. If he loses early, maybe even to Brendan Jones on Wednesday, he can blame rust, a new baby, eight months off or a combo platter of all three. If he advances into the weekend, improving his 31-6 match record in this event, well, it's just another amazing chapter in his amazing career. The man can't go wrong. As an added consolation prize, if he gets knocked off early, he will still have checked off one tournament toward his 15-event minimum, and he'll be able to say he supported one of the tour's special WGC events.
Consider this week spring training for Tiger. He'll get a chance to compete and see exactly where his game is and where it needs to be as he prepares for Augusta, which is only six weeks away. He will expect to win this week, as he always does. And if you think he isn't the favorite, even with only one practice round on a course he hasn't seen (as far as we know) before this week, then you don't know Tiger.
The first rule of golf is, never bet against Tiger. The second rule of golf is, never talk about Fight Club. Or bet against Tiger. All you have to know about this week's event is that Mr. Woods will arrive ready to play. You know it, I know it and Brendan Jones knows it.