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Return journey: Woods is back,so are the crowds

Last seen amid the Torreys in June,Tiger Woods materialised Tuesday morning amid the saguaros,luring one of the thicker practice-round galleries.....

Last seen amid the Torreys in June,Tiger Woods materialised Tuesday morning amid the saguaros,luring one of the thicker practice-round galleries.

Eyeballs resumed their craven need to tag along as he played and walked the 18 holes of the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club northwest of Tucson on the eve of golf’s most momentous return since Ben Hogan at Riviera in 1950. The droves followed him past the prickly pear and the barrel cactus and the dreaded cholla that jumped out and stabbed one guy in the shoulder,and they often marvelled at the guy in the blue-striped shirt and gray slacks.

“Give me a break!” one exclaimed when Woods’s tee shot on the par-three 16th hole tore through the sky and obediently took up shop three feet from the cup.

“Welcome back,Tiger!” said a man along the 17th fairway,and in a seldom-seen twist,Woods turned and nodded appreciation.

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“Sorry I’m late,” Woods later said in a raging fire-code violation of an interview tent. “I forgot how long it takes to play 18 holes walking.”

For the first time since he won a 19-hole US Open playoff at Torrey Pines last June 16,he walked the 18 at a PGA Tour event on the eve of his return slated for Wednesday in the Accenture World Match Play Championship. His absence to rehabilitate from left-knee surgery had lasted eight months,but PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem cracked,“What was it,four,4 1/2 years now?”

Fresh adrenaline

Fresh adrenaline travelled the tour’s bloodstream in temperatures nearing 90 degrees as Woods and his coterie travelled the 7,849-yard Jack Nicklaus course. Shutters clicked amok,and Woods dutifully stopped mid-swing a few times before continuing. He looked same-as-ever if a bit surreal given the familiarity of his absence.

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Approaching his first-round match against No 64 Brendan Jones of Australia,Woods said,“I’m looking forward to the rush tomorrow,I really am,waking up tomorrow and getting ready for my round and getting focussed.”

Woods had surgery last June 24,and golf-wise,he said the respite wound up having the unforeseeable effect of unearthing some goodies from his bag. He couldn’t push it,so he had to finagle it.

“I got really good at hitting a five-iron 100 yards,” he said. “I could really dial that in. My short game has gotten a little bit better. I’ve got more shots than I did before,just because I’ve spent so much time on it,chipping and all the different shots around the greens. Some of the shots I had forgotten that I had over the years,I kind of remembered how to hit them again.”

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Asked what he’d missed most,he quipped,“I missed sitting here in front of you guys. Talking. Just hanging out here. No,I miss that rush of playing and competing,I really do,getting on that first tee and feeling it. I miss that.”

Mostly,though,he just looked exhilarated,grinning hugely at times about the time the layoff gave him with his wife and his 20-month-old daughter Sam,using phrases such as “a blessing in disguise” and “the closeness that I feel” — and,in an unthinkable development,reporting he’d curtailed practice sessions when his newborn son Charlie would wake.

First published on: 26-02-2009 at 12:37:52 am
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