HE CAME AND WENT. One practice round instead of the usual two. An easy win, in a match settled on the 16th hole, in the first round. A drubbing, in another match settled at 16, in the second round of the Accenture Match Play Championship. Tiger Woods shook some hands, talked to the mikes for a minute or two, and he was gone, off to Orlando, back to Elin, the kids, the dogs and the Isleworth range. It was nothing like a vintage performance. But life at home, Woods said, has never been better. You've never seen him so happy, not in defeat. ¬∂ Woods is expected to play the event at Doral in Miami next week and Arnold Palmer's tournament at Bay Hill in Orlando in late March. He'll play to win, of course. That's his professional M.O. But the real question is this: At the Masters in April, will we again see the legend grow? Will Tiger do his thing? Millions of greedy sports fans watch with one expectation—to see victory. He's spoiled us. ¬∂ Based on last week's glimpse, on a contrived course called the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club in a desert development called Dove Mountain outside Tucson, Tiger's game is not yet whole. He says his surgically reconstructed left knee—a body part that could sue its master for abuse if it had a better lawyer—is fine. Tiger's gait was measured and sometimes slow on the hard, sunbaked fairways. (His caddie, Steve Williams, was often 50 yards ahead of him.) But you never saw Tiger grimace in pain. There was ice for the knee after his rounds but no buckling during them. It was nothing like the last time Woods made swings in anger, at Torrey Pines last June during his epic U.S. Open win. ¬∂ Eight months is a long time for a pro golfer to be away from pro golf. Golfers change. (The exception to the rule is Bernhard Langer.) Woods might be a little smaller in the chest now, though it's hard to say. He wasn't wearing the formfitting golf shirts he used to wear way back when. (You know: 2007, '08.) He looks slightly more round-shouldered at address, a half step toward Vijay Singh and away from Camilo Villegas. At times last week his last look at the hole before putting was more of a blink than the stare down that Bob May, Rocco Mediate and other victims know so well. Of the 60-something full swings Woods made—and he'll make thousands more before the year is over—only two were all-out, from-the-cleats kill jobs, both with cushions of sand holding up his ball; one was from a fairway bunker, the other from a fried-egg greenside lie.
O.K., we are surely ascribing too much importance to this 32-hole golfing sprint. But we have to make up for lost time! (Golf Channel was going crazy last week: Tiger has made his first appearance. It's 7:02 a.m. mountain standard time. He appears to be wearing a blue shirt. Hold it, he's drawing closer. It's a striped shirt. We can confirm that. The dominant color is blue. And here comes Stevie, looking trim, very relaxed. This is going to be quite the practice round.) As it played out, the Match Play was nothing more than a first spring training outing. Still, we are duty bound to report that Tiger was wearing those little ankle socks last week—pads, as they're known in the trade. His were white, with a black swoosh.
Actually, Tiger was a little different last week. He's 33 now, raising children, designing courses, making friends in high places. (At the presidential inauguration Woods invited the President for a game at some unspecified time.) In Arizona, Woods said the trio of teen sensations who will play in the Masters—Danny Lee of the U.S., Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Ryo Ishikawa of Japan—were "good for the game" but belonged to "a different generation" than his own. Tiger has always liked the phrase back in the day. He sounded as if he's looking forward to becoming one of golf's grand old men, like Palmer was when Woods turned pro, like his father was at the time of his death in 2006. Adulthood suits him.
There was none of the smoldering intensity we all saw at Tiger's last 2008 appearance, but why would there be? You can't begin to compare an Accenture Match Play Championship on the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club course in Manara, Ariz., with a U.S. Open played on a seaside public course that's down the road from your childhood home and oozing good memories.
During a 15-minute wait on the 15th tee in his first-round match against Brendan Jones of Australia, Woods sat on an ice chest, took off his shoes, did some stretching and talked about snowmobiling with Jones's caddie, Ron Levin. (Snow machiner Todd Palin did not come up, but snowmobiler Mark O'Meara did.) In the second round, in his match against Tim Clark of South Africa, Woods holed an 18-yard bunker shot for a birdie on 14 without even a modest fist pump. Of course, he was three down at the time. That score will dampen your mood.
But when Clark missed his birdie putt and lost the 14th, Woods suddenly was only two down with four to play. From years of Tiger-watching—going back to the 1996 U.S. Amateur at Pumpkin Ridge, when Tiger axed away at Steve Scott's gaudy lead—you knew what would happen next, right? Woods is like a heavyweight champion drawing first blood. The crowd sees it and smells it, the energy level changes, the corner men (rules officials, photographers, caddies, TV cameramen) start frothing, and the only person thinking straight is the once, current and future champ. Fifteen at the Ritz-Carlton is a drivable par-4 and Tiger had the honor and Clark's a short hitter. You had to feel for the little South African. Super effort, but he was going down.
What were the chances of Woods—the seize-the-day Woods we all know—hitting it O.B. there? Zero. But that's what Woods did, a wicked push that started right and went paragliding from there. Usually his "baby draw" into a fade wind is his most dependable shot, summoned on his personal golf-swing iPod with one easy click. Not this time. Just a big, old, garden-variety blocked shot. There were no f-bombs. He didn't bury the head of his driver. He didn't glare at the idiot who said, "Get in the hole." (On Golf Channel, being watched by millions across the world at that moment, the droll Nick Faldo said, "Good call, mate.") Tiger's do-over from the 15th tee was a Woodsian blend of art and science, driver to 20 feet. But it was one swing too late, and then (more weirdness) he didn't hole the par putt.
Golfers find it hard to putt well on greens they don't like, and Woods clearly disliked the mammoth ones at Dove Mountain. We know this because he calmly called them the "slowest greens" he had ever putted on Tour and "a little severe" in slope. For Tiger, that's screaming. Especially when you consider the course was designed by his boyhood hero, Mr. J.W. Nicklaus, the only player who has won more majors than Tiger. The tally, you likely know, is 18--14, meaning Woods could, as a matter of arithmetic, tie the game this year.
But Tiger's mantra has always been one at a time, and the greens that occupy his mind are at the first stop: the massive, severe superfast greens of Augusta National. Those he likes. Those he can putt. Like nobody else, except maybe Arnold and Jack, back in the day.
Woods, as you would expect, came to the desert prepared. The subject of his suntan is one of Tiger's long-standing press-tent bits, and before he played his first competitive shot of 2009 Woods said he was happy to be out on Tour again "working on my farmer's tan."
But you knew he had been logging hours at home by looking at his left hand, where he wears his golf glove. If he's been cruising the Caribbean in his yacht, Privacy, or otherwise taking a break from the game, his left hand becomes as dark as his right. Last week his left hand was three shades lighter than his right. He had been taking his reps on the Isleworth range.
Still, he wasn't 100%. Everyone said so privately. (Only Johnny Miller of NBC said it out loud.) His pick-your-spots power wasn't there. His vaunted distance control—his pride and joy—was off at times. More than anything, he couldn't putt those swooping greens, not by his standards. He won at Torrey last year, despite hitting a bunch of poor shots, by making everything.
Tiger, and everyone else who has played competitive golf, emphasizes the point that golf has no defense. You can't tackle your opponent at his ankles when he's at the top of his swing. But for Tiger, that's not true. People said Tim Clark was hard to beat in Round 2, what with six birdies and no bogeys. But Tiger let him make those birdies. He didn't get in Clark's head, Tiger-style. He didn't shut him down in the desert, intimidate him by playing shots nobody else has. That's how Tiger plays defense. Ask Scott, May, Mediate and a hundred others.
Anyway, from Tiger's point of view, the Match Play was a two-day test of the emergency broadcasting system. On a pass-fail basis, he passed. Everything's O.K., the knee, the family life, the man himself. We can breathe again.
Get the inside scoop from SI Golf Group writers and editors at GOLF.com/confidential.
There was none of the smoldering intensity we saw at Tiger's last 2008 appearance, but why should there be? YOU CAN'T COMPARE AN ACCENTURE MATCH PLAY WITH A U.S. OPEN.
Tiger wasn't 100%. Everyone said so privately. (ONLY JOHNNY MILLER SAID IT OUT LOUD.) His pick-your-spots power wasn't there. His vaunted distance control—his pride and joy—was off at times.
Talented and thoughtful Geoff Ogilvy may be just the player to make Australian history
THE TOUR moves to Florida this week, where the road to Augusta begins. (Head north on I-95 and clear into Georgia.) Who do you like? Any serious student of the Masters will tell you that the winner is likely to be a former winner: a Tiger, a Phil or a Vijay. Winning begets winning, there more than anywhere. Jack Nicklaus won six green jackets. Arnold Palmer won four. It's a good place for American golfers, who have won 55 Masters titles. No Australian has ever won, which is surprising, since Australia has produced two of the greatest talents ever to play the game, Peter Thomson and Greg Norman. And also because there's more Royal Melbourne in Augusta National than any course, except the Old Course.
This information, you should know, comes from an impeccable source, from a serious student of the Masters and the most original-thinking golfer on Tour today: the Australian Geoff Ogilvy, winner of last week's Accenture Match Play Championship, played on a new course about 40 miles and a few cattle ranches away from downtown Tucson.
With his skinny-man's upright action and metronome timing, there are few golfers you'd rather watch swing the club than Ogilvy. (Another Australian, Steve Elkington, comes to mind.) There are even fewer golfers you'd rather hear talk about the game. (The inimitable Lee Trevino comes to mind.) After defeating 19-year-old Rory McIlroy in the quarterfinals of the Match Play, Ogilvy said that the young Irishman is destined to become the second-best player in the world in the next decade. What elite golfer says anything bold and well-considered anymore? Ogilvy is a golfer in full, in an era when there are few of them left.
Ogilvy himself is the fourth-ranked player in the world, behind Woods, Sergio García and Phil Mickelson, and he'd be far better known if he won more in the bright light. He won the season opener, the Mercedes Championship, when the country was deep in the grip of football. In the Match Play final on Sunday, at your classic over-the-top development course—the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain, nearly 7,500 yards of hard bounces and prickly shrubbery—Ogilvy took an early lead over Paul Casey of England and was so relentlessly consistent that you never doubted how it would finish. Maybe you went out to buy a snow shovel when Ogilvy first went 3 up. When you came back, an hour or two later, he was still 3 up. It was not must-see TV. Ogilvy won the U.S. Open in 2006 from the Winged Foot clubhouse, with a million eyes, Ogilvy's among them, on Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie. Character is revealed in such moments. Ogilvy looked as if he were watching Tavis Smiley, and when it was over he shook the hands of the locker room attendants, hugged his wife and went out to 18 to collect a trophy previously won by David Graham, Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones.
Ogilvy makes no claim to be the next Greg Norman. "There's no next Greg Norman," Ogilvy says. He mentions Norman's charisma and then defines it: "You walk into a room and can tell he's there." Also, Norman got more attention for his losses—most particularly at Augusta—than for his wins. If Ogilvy is leading at Augusta through 63 holes, he should win. Why? Because his head is on so straight. He's no swashbuckling outbacker in an oiled hat. He's the brainy golfer, even without having attended a day of school beyond high school. And also because the Augusta winner is usually playing with his closest competitor in the last twosome, which is why the great Masters tournaments often feel like match play, and Ogilvy plays match play as well as anybody, except Tiger. Well, last week he was better than Tiger. He was better in 2006, too, when Ogilvy won his first Match Play title.
The Match Play, let's be frank here, is an entertaining money grab. Ogilvy won $1.4 million. For this haul he had to make a 90-minute trip on I-10 to Scottsdale—where he and Casey belong to the same club, Whisper Rock—an easy Sunday drive. You could imagine them at the Whisper Rock bar with the club's senior champ, Gary McCord, trying to guess the age of his mustache. The lead story in the Tucson paper the day before Ogilvy's win was about a local company hiring 200 people for $10-an-hour jobs. Ogilvy makes no grand societal claims for his work. What he is, he said on Sunday night in the desert, is "a pretty decent" golfer looking to get better. It's a worthy goal, trying to get better at some challenging thing. He said he wished he had faced Tiger on his way to victory. Maybe that'll happen in Florida, or at Augusta.
Photograph by Robert Beck
SLOPE-A-DOPE Woods was happy to be back but baffled by the greens at Dove Mountain.
Photograph by Robert Beck
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A REAL SNAP Ogilvy's winning percentage at the Match Play (89.48%, 17--2) tops Tiger Woods's (82.05%, 32--7) as the best in the event's history.
Photograph by Robert Beck
BIG MO-MENT When Woods holed a bunker shot at 14, there was a feeling that Clark was going down.
Photograph by Robert Beck
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TEE TALE Woods's opening drive (above) was the shot heard, and viewed, 'round the world, while his last was off the planet.