Eight months later, Tiger Woods looked as though he had never been away. Woods made a triumphant return to golf Wednesday in the Accenture Match Play Championship with a start that showed golf what it had been missing in the 253 days since he limped his way to an epic U.S. Open title.
Just past high noon in the desert, Woods fired an 8-iron into 5 feet for birdie. Then came a gentle fist pump when his 3-iron from 237 yards on the par-5 second settled 4 feet from the cup for eagle.
He closed out Brendan Jones of Australia with a 3-foot par on the 16th hole for a 3-and-2 victory.
"It felt like nothing had changed," Woods said. "Walking down the fairway, it was like business as usual."
But this was no ordinary day.
Before thousands of fans who scurried through the high desert, eager to see every shot from the world's No. 1 player, Woods showed no sign of the reconstructive surgery done on his left knee a week after winning the U.S. Open.
"It held up," he said. "It felt good."
Woods said he had looked forward to the rush of competing. It was as if all that time away from golf had been bottled up inside him. And then it came gushing out on a scorching day on Dove Mountain, where temperatures approached 90 degrees.
Fans packed into the bleachers around the first tee, with more lined up behind the ropes all the way to the green, and the cheer when Woods walked onto the tee could be heard all the way down the fairway.
Woods backed off his tee shot, and without much expression, belted a fairway metal down the right side of the fairway.
"You are back!" one spectator shouted.
Was he ever.
He won the first two holes before some rust settled in. Woods made three bogeys over his next five holes and was leading, 1 up, until he birdied the par-5 eighth with a 6-foot putt.
Jones never got any closer.
Woods seized control of the match when Jones couldn't save par behind the green on the par-3 12th, and then Woods struck another familiar pose by raising his putter above his head as his 20-foot eagle putt dropped on the 13th.
It was the third time in five years Woods had surgery on his left knee, adding to the mystery of whether he would be as good as the player who has won 65 times on the PGA Tour, including 14 majors.
"I came back from surgery before, but never this long," Woods said. "And it didn't have quite the same attention."
His return dwarfed everything else that took place in the first round at The Ritz-Carlton Club.
Stewart Cink was the second match out, and there were only a few dozen fans in the bleachers. His game with Richard Sterne was tied after 18 holes, so they headed back to the first tee _ making Woods and Jones wait a few extra minutes.
This time, there wasn't an inch of wood available in the bleachers. Fans stood four deep around the tee box, and they lined the ropes all the way to the green some 460 yards away. It was a bigger crowd than when Cink played Woods in the championship match last year.
"I just told everybody on the first tee that he's waited eight months to play," Cink said. "He can wait two more minutes."
Cink wound up winning his match, one of six that required overtime.
Phil Mickelson, who blew a four-shot lead at Riviera and rallied to win three days ago, did it again. He was 4 up on Angel Cabrera with five holes to play until the Argentine caught him, but Lefty birdied the 19th hole.
Other top players were not so fortunate.
Sergio Garcia, the No. 2 seed, lost to Charl Schwartzel on the 18th hole when the Spaniard hit into the bunker and made bogey.
Third-seeded Padraig Harrington, who won the British Open and PGA Championship while Woods was away, arrived at Dove Mountain having missed his last two cuts. This was a short week, too, for he lost to Pat Perez on the 18th hole.
Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas, the faces of the next generation hopeful of challenging Woods, had the shortest days. Kim never lost a hole in beating Lin Wen-Tang of Taiwan, 7 and 5, while Villegas beat Rod Pampling, 7 and 6.
They were on the same course, but it sure wasn't center court.
Cink was surprised to see even a few dozen people in the bleachers when he began his match.
"They got there early and claimed their seats for Tiger," he said. "Because really, Tiger's match was the only one that mattered today."
Woods, as he has done so often in his career, gave the crowd what they came to see.
And even Jones, who appeared to be overwhelmed, got caught up in the commotion.
"As I walked off the first hole, there was just mayhem _ media, and everyone was just running," Jones said.
After Woods birdied the first hole, Jones overhead a reporter say, "Another nine holes to go for 10 and 8." Jones did his best to make the match last as long as it did. After a lengthy wait on the 315-yard 15th, Woods hit 3-wood onto the green, and the Australian followed with a shot even closer, making eagle. Still, Jones knew his stay at Dove Mountain was not going to be a long one.
"I really wouldn't be betting against him," Jones said. "He hit some shots other people can't hit."
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