LOS ANGELES (AP) — Tiger Woods has been on the golf course every day, either practicing or playing, hitting his full array of shots without fear of pain shooting down his left leg or bones sliding out of place.
The next step is taking that inside the ropes. And not even Woods is sure what to expect.
“I’m as curious as you,” Woods said Friday during a conference call. “The feeling of adrenaline, the rush of competing and playing again, all that I haven’t done in a while.”
Woods will have gone more than eight months – 253 days to be exact – without hitting a shot that counts when he returns from reconstructive knee surgery next week at the Accenture Match Play Championship just north of Tucson, Ariz.
His goal is to win. That hasn’t changed. The surgery in June was to repair his knee, not his heart or his mind. But as confident as Woods feels about his game, his main concern is how sharp he will be in his first tournament since the U.S. Open last June.
“It’s one thing to do it in a practice environment at home against my buddies for a little bit of cash,” Woods said. “It’s a totally different deal to do it at a PGA Tour event against the best players in the world. I’m excited to get out there and experience that.”
But at least he’ll be doing it on a healthy knee, saying “it’s been years” since he was without pain.
“One of the great things coming back is my bones aren’t moving anymore,” Woods said. “It’s a very comforting feeling hitting a golf ball without your bones sliding all over the place. That’s been very exciting to play that way, and I’m looking forward to the season.”
Swing coach Hank Haney said the only change in his swing will be the finish, noting that Woods finally has a strong left knee that will not give way and “flop all over the place.”
The only noticeable change might be his golf bag.
Woods ended his nine-year endorsement deal with Buick because of the automaker’s financial problems. He said he will have AT&T on his bag as an extended partnership with the telecommunications giant. AT&T is the title sponsor of his PGA Tour event in Washington and a major sponsor of his foundation.
He also has an endorsement with Accenture, although Woods said that wasn’t behind his decision to return.
The knee has felt strong enough that he could have played earlier. All he waited on was the birth of his son, Charlie Axel, making sure his wife and baby were healthy before he went back to work.
“It was making sure the family was all good with the birth of Charlie and making sure Elin was OK, Charlie was OK, everything was safe and sound on the home front,” he said. “Then the focus was on playing again.”
Woods offered some insight on the name of his son.
He said there was a “slight connection” to Charlie Sifford, the first black to join the PGA Tour, but more than anything, “We thought it sounded good.” Axel, which has Swedish origins, is the name of his wife’s brother.
It will be remarkable if Woods can continue the pace he was on when he won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines for his 14th career major, one he called “probably the best ever” because of his wounded knee.
That was his ninth victory in 12 official tournaments around the world, and he finished no worse than fifth in the other three.
“I know when he left he was hitting it awfully good,” Haney said. “He feels like he’s getting close to that. Expectations with him are off the chart. You would think that people would cut him a little slack for a couple of weeks. But I’m sure it will start right in.”
Woods is the defending champion at the Accenture Match Play Championship, with a career record of 31-6. But even last year showed how much luck is required. Woods was 3 down with five holes to play until rallying with long putts to beat J.B. Holmes. In the third round, Aaron Baddeley twice had putts inside 12 feet to win, and Woods escaped with a victory in 20 holes.
The format could help – match play is about winning the hole, not what kind of score goes on the card.
“Hopefully, I’ll get into the flow of the round quickly,” he said. “It helps that it is match play. It helps that each hole is a match. It pays to get off to a quick start.”
The tournament moves up the road on Dove Mountain to the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, designed by Jack Nicklaus. Woods doesn’t know the golf course, but neither does the rest of the 64-man field.
All that matters to Woods, not to mention the rest of golf, is that he will be playing again.
Woods has not watched much golf during his absence, except for a few holes of the British Open and PGA Championship (both won by Padraig Harrington) and the Ryder Cup, when he was busy texting his teammates.
He has missed the competition, no doubt, and spent the last several months looking to satisfy that.
“I had to find competition in different ways,” Woods said. “What I did was really focus on my rehab. That was my open personal competition each and every day to get better. Because I couldn’t do it in the golfing arena anymore, I turned my competitive juices to a different area. That made my workouts more productive. And here we are.”