THE PRACTICERANGE at Isleworth Country Club in Orlando is vast, beautiful and exposed, andin the last month it has been one of the final testing grounds in the comebackof Tiger Woods. At various times on different days, Woods has gone there to hitballs 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 spottedWoods 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 tookthe club back, swung hard and watched the ball go skyward. Instead of doublingover in pain, as he did last June while winning the U.S. Open at Torrey Pineswith 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 itout there," O'Hern says. "As physically fit and mentally tough as heis, I'm guessing he'll win at least one major this year."
This is thepicture that the sports world has been missing for the last eight months whileWoods has been healing from surgery to rebuild his left anterior cruciateligament: the rocket tee shots and trundling chips, the dynamism and charismaof an athlete in his prime. Though Woods's return this week, at the AccentureMatch Play Championship at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club near Tucson, is notunique in the annals of sport, the circumstances surrounding golf and the worldbeyond seem to cry out for his presence.
The economy istanking. The best player in baseball admitted to using performance-enhancingdrugs. Golf sponsorship has become more risky amid falling television ratingsand tightening purse strings. Even in the calm after football season and beforethe basketball postseason, golf has had trouble making a dent—until now.
"To me, whenyou have what is going on in the country, people escape their troubles bywatching sports, and this is the biggest sports story we have going rightnow," 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, itsucks you in."
Roger Maltbie, anon-course reporter for the network (which will air the Accenture's finalrounds), is more pointed. "We are starved for him," says Maltbie, whoplayed for 22 years on Tour. "The year seems flat. I don't mean to beunfair to any of the other guys, but a lot of people can play the fiddle. Onlyone guy is Itzhak Perlman."
That Tourcommissioner Tim Finchem saw fit to release a statement after Woods'sannouncement—"We are delighted that Tiger is returning to competition,"Finchem said—only underscores Woods's meaning to the game in good times andbad. Finchem has asked players to do everything they can to enhance the Tourbrand, from adding tournaments to their schedules to showing appreciation tosponsors, pro-am partners and fans. Some are taking the plea to heart; Tour proRobert Garrigus says that he now thanks tournament volunteers even after hemakes a bogey. And now here comes the 33-year-old Woods as the Tour's biggestattraction, something of a one-man stimulus package. "We're going to bringsome fans back," says Rich Beem, winner of the 2002 PGA Championship.
Even beyondWoods's resumption of his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majortitles—a mark Woods could tie by winning the Grand Slam this year—there areother benefits golf may soon realize with Tiger back in the fold. The Tour'ssix-year contract with network television expires in 2012, and there is nobigger selling point than Woods as golf's leading man.
Beyond ourborders the Tour, along with the game's other governing bodies, submitted a bidlast month to the International Olympic Committee to include golf in the 2016Summer Games. Last year several top-ranked players from a variety of toursfilmed a four-minute, 35-second video trumpeting their support for theinitiative. The opening footage is of Woods pumping his fist. The closing scenehas Woods saying that he could not think of a better sport to make an Olympicevent. "Having the Number 1 most recognized athlete in the world playingour sport certainly is something that makes [it] even more attractive for theOlympics," says Ty Votaw, the PGA Tour VP who doubles as the executivedirector of the International Golf Federation Olympic Golf Committee.
Despite thedemise of his endorsement deal with General Motors, Woods's comeback stands togenerate other business opportunities. On his bag he will carry the logo ofAT&T, the company that sponsors his tournament outside of Washington, D.C.,over the Fourth of July. Nike, which manufactures Woods's clubs, balls andapparel, is also planning to release a new commercial timed to his comeback atthe Match Play. The company often has launched commercials to coincide withWoods'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 atTiger as if he's making history every time he tees it up," says CindyDavis, the president of Nike Golf. "We do everything we can to capitalizeon that energy."
In some ways thatenergy has already started to build. When word filtered throughout RivieraCountry Club last Thursday that Woods was coming back, the entire vibe aroundthe Northern Trust Open changed. His peers talked about his impact on thecourse and at the gate. Yet Woods was quick to remind people that he is agolfer, not a savior. "The only thing I can control is, obviously, myplay," he said during a conference call. "We as a collective whole onthe PGA Tour have to do a better job of making sure we appreciate all the fansand sponsors for what they do for us and allowing us to have an opportunity tocompete and play for a living. I think over the years we may have taken thatfor granted. Now is a time that reality certainly has checked in."
Woods's reentrypaid immediate dividends for the Match Play. After attracting 128 media outletsand 379 journalists last year, when Woods defeated Stewart Cink 8 and 7 in thefinal, the tournament this year issued credentials for more than 175 outletsand 500 media members. The list includes the network nightly news shows, CNN,the BBC and even a publication from Sweden, the home country of Woods's wife,Elin.
The unansweredquestion is how well Woods will perform. He's won 65 Tour events and 11 moretournaments worldwide, but will he be the same golfer after an eight-monthlayoff? Woods says even he is curious to see, but his peers have little doubt.They envision a golfer inspired by the birth of his second child (Charlie Axel,on Feb. 8), a golfer hitting shots pain-free for the first time in nearly twoyears, a golfer accustomed to carrying the game on his shoulders.
"I actuallythink he'll be as good as ever, if not better," Padraig Harrington said inthe gloaming on Thursday at Riviera. "A long and forced break makes youlove the game even more, if it's possible for him to do that."
Rocco Mediate,who pushed Woods to 91 holes at last year's U.S. Open in San Diego, would knowbetter than most what to expect. "He's the man, he's the king, he'sit," Mediate said. "Our Tour's cool, but it's really cool with him. Iguarantee you that he wins [the Accenture Match Play]. You think he's comingout not 180,000 percent? He's not coming out going, Let's see how I do. That'snot going to happen. He's still Tiger."
The golf worldand everything it touches can only hope.
"I don't mean to be unfair," says Maltbie,"but a lot of people can play the fiddle. ONLY ONE GUY IS ITZHAKPERLMAN."
Phil Being Phil
Wildly erratic one day, brilliant the next, PhilMickelson nevertheless gets a victory and a big boost for the Masters
PHIL MICKELSON was signing autographs at Riviera onSunday evening when a fan approached with two paper plates concealing asurprise. When Mickelson removed the top plate his eyes opened wide: There sata clump of dirt with roots hanging from the bottom and bright-green grasssprouting from the top.
"It's your divot from the 8th hole," said thefan, offering Phil a memento from his first victory since last May. Mickelsondeclined the gift. He was already thinking about a different green prize.
To watch Mickelson at Riviera was to see a golfergrind through 72 holes—sometimes painfully, sometimes beautifully—with theprimary goal of preparing for the Masters and a bid for a third green jacket.As if winning consecutive Northern Trust Opens was not a big enoughaccomplishment (seven players, including Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer, haveaccomplished the feat in the 84-year history of the event), Mickelson seemedmost pleased that the atmosphere mirrored the tension of a majorchampionship.
With Fred Couples riding shotgun, as he did at the2006 Masters, Riviera served as Mickelson's proving ground, as well as an idealbridge to the return of Tiger Woods. Every aspect of Mickelson's game wasrevealed during the course of the week. There was red-hot Phil in an openingeight-under 63; a wild-off-the-tee Phil last Friday, when he shot a 72; arejuvenated Phil—thanks to a quick house call by swing doctor ButchHarmon—during Saturday's scorching 62; and, finally, a hang-on-for-dear-lifePhil on Sunday, when he shot another 72.
After his five-stroke lead had evaporated midwaythrough the final round, Mickelson put away the driver and opted to use a newthree-wood off the tee, and that helped turn things around. Mickelson said healso put aside any swing thoughts and simply focused on the target. He erased atwo-shot deficit to Steve Stricker by making birdies on the par-3 16th and thepar-5 17th, then rolling in a six-footer for par at the par-4 18th afterStricker had bogeyed. Two years ago, leading this tournament by a stroke as hestood on the 18th tee, Mickelson pushed his drive, made bogey and lost aplayoff to Charles Howell.
"I'll take a lot out of this," Mickelson saidafterward. "To be able to heart it out on 16 and 17 with birdies, then tomake that par on 18 when two years ago I didn't, that meant a lot tome."
Couples, who will captain this year's U.S. PresidentsCup team, played despite difficult circumstances. On the Tuesday of tournamentweek he learned that his estranged wife, Thais Baker, had died of breast cancerin Santa Barbara, Calif. Couples didn't attend the funeral, he said, because"I'm not really welcome up there, so I decided to play." Nevertheless,the 49-year-old Couples, whose last Tour victory came in 2003, played wellenough to win and trailed Mickelson by only a stroke through 71 holes. Anall-but-shanked seven-iron approach on the 72nd ended his bid. "I got alittle loose and hit a bad shot," he said. "I just didn't give myself achance."
Instead, it was Mickelson lording it over Rivieraagain, following Woods's announcement with his own return of serve. In a seasonwith new life, a green jacket waits to be filled.
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THE TIGER SHOW
Shot-by-shot coverage of Woods's 2009 debut, plus multiple daily reports andphotos from the Accenture Match Play Championship.
Photograph by Robert Beck
BACKSPIN Woods was sturdy as he won the Match Play last year (right), but he winced his way to victory at the Open (left).
[See caption above]
DOM FURORE/WOODS FAMILY VIA GETTY IMAGES (FAMILY)
HOMEBODY While recuperating, Woods enjoyed time with Elin and daughter Sam (left) as they waited for baby Charlie.
Photograph by Robert Beck
TEAM WORK Woods, with caddie Steve Williams (left) and coach Hank Haney, has been honing his game since December.
WIN FALL Among active pros, only Woods, with 65, has more W's than Mickelson (35).