Tiger Woods returns with the weight of the game resting on his reconstructed knee

Tiger Woods, WGC-Accenture Match Play
Fred Vuich/SI
Surrounded by media and fans, Tiger Woods played a practice round Tuesday morning.

The practice range at Isleworth Country Club in Orlando is vast, beautiful and exposed, and in the last month it has been one of the final testing grounds in the comeback of Tiger Woods. At various times on different days, Woods has gone there to hit balls so often that some of his neighbors could not help but sneak a peek.

Among the curious was fellow PGA Tour professional Nick O'Hern, who spotted Woods during a recent session and decided to observe a golfer on the mend. Woods placed a ball on a tee. He set the head of his driver behind it. He took the club back, swung hard and watched the ball go skyward. Instead of doubling over in pain, as he did last June while winning the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines with bones shifting in his left leg, Woods stood tall at the finish. Then, without hesitation, he started over and did it again. "He was bombing it out there," O'Hern says. "As physically fit and mentally tough as he is, I'm guessing he'll win at least one major this year."

This is the picture that the sports world has been missing for the last eight months while Woods has been healing from surgery to rebuild his left anterior cruciate ligament: the rocket tee shots and trundling chips, the dynamism and charisma of an athlete in his prime. Though Woods's return Wednesday, at the Accenture Match Play Championship at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club near Tucson, is not unique in the annals of sport, the circumstances surrounding golf and the world beyond seem to cry out for his presence. (See in-progress scores and a schedule of matches in our leaderboard.)

The economy is tanking. The best player in baseball admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. Golf sponsorship has become more risky amid falling television ratings and tightening purse strings. Even in the calm after football season and before the basketball postseason, golf has had trouble making a dent — until now.

"To me, when you have what is going on in the country, people escape their troubles by watching sports, and this is the biggest sports story we have going right now," says Tommy Roy, the executive producer for golf at NBC Sports, speaking of Woods's return. "He's so likable in the way that he plays, it sucks you in."

Roger Maltbie, an on-course reporter for the network (which will air the Accenture's final rounds), is more pointed. "We are starved for him," says Maltbie, who played for 22 years on Tour. "The year seems flat. I don't mean to be unfair to any of the other guys, but a lot of people can play the fiddle. Only one guy is Itzhak Perlman."

That Tour commissioner Tim Finchem saw fit to release a statement after Woods's announcement — "We are delighted that Tiger is returning to competition," Finchem said — only underscores Woods's meaning to the game in good times and bad. Finchem has asked players to do everything they can to enhance the Tour brand, from adding tournaments to their schedules to showing appreciation to sponsors, pro-am partners and fans. Some are taking the plea to heart; Tour pro Robert Garrigus says that he now thanks tournament volunteers even after he makes a bogey. And now here comes the 33-year-old Woods as the Tour's biggest attraction, something of a one-man stimulus package. "We're going to bring some fans back," says Rich Beem, winner of the 2002 PGA Championship.

Even beyond Woods's resumption of his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major titles — a mark Woods could tie by winning the Grand Slam this year — there are other benefits golf may soon realize with Tiger back in the fold. The Tour's six-year contract with network television expires in 2012, and there is no bigger selling point than Woods as golf's leading man.

Beyond our borders the Tour, along with the game's other governing bodies, submitted a bid last month to the International Olympic Committee to include golf in the 2016 Summer Games. Last year several top-ranked players from a variety of tours filmed a four-minute, 35-second video trumpeting their support for the initiative. The opening footage is of Woods pumping his fist. The closing scene has Woods saying that he could not think of a better sport to make an Olympic event. "Having the Number 1 most recognized athlete in the world playing our sport certainly is something that makes [it] even more attractive for the Olympics," says Ty Votaw, the PGA Tour VP who doubles as the executive director of the International Golf Federation Olympic Golf Committee.

Despite the demise of his endorsement deal with General Motors, Woods's comeback stands to generate other business opportunities. On his bag he will carry the logo of AT&T, the company that sponsors his tournament outside of Washington, D.C., over the Fourth of July. Nike, which manufactures Woods's clubs, balls and apparel, is also planning to release a new commercial timed to his comeback at the Match Play. The company often has launched commercials to coincide with Woods's victories, including at the 2005 British Open and at last year's U.S. Open, his final tournament before undergoing ACL surgery.

"We look at Tiger as if he's making history every time he tees it up," says Cindy Davis, the president of Nike Golf. "We do everything we can to capitalize on that energy."

In some ways that energy has already started to build. When word filtered throughout Riviera Country Club last Thursday that Woods was coming back, the entire vibe around the Northern Trust Open changed. His peers talked about his impact on the course and at the gate. Yet Woods was quick to remind people that he is a golfer, not a savior. "The only thing I can control is, obviously, my play," he said during a conference call. "We as a collective whole on the PGA Tour have to do a better job of making sure we appreciate all the fans and sponsors for what they do for us and allowing us to have an opportunity to compete and play for a living. I think over the years we may have taken that for granted. Now is a time that reality certainly has checked in."

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