Brian Keogh in Tucson
Tucson was bristling with more microphones and satellite dishes than cacti as Tiger Woods made his long-awaited reappearance at a packed press conference that began with a joke and ended with a statement of intent that will have sent a shiver down the spines of the other 63 hopefuls who will tee it up in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship today.
Golf has been waiting with bated breath for its crown prince to return from knee surgery and after 254 days, he kept his public waiting another 45 minutes as he put the finishing touches to his first practice round in suffocating heat at the 7,800 yard Ritz-Carlton Golf Club.
“It's great to be back,” Woods said, flashing his superstar smile. “Sorry I'm late. I forgot how long it takes to play 18 holes walking.”
It was a light-hearted opening to a news conference that was beamed live around the world. But as it drew to a close, Woods sent a stark warning to his rivals that he has every intention of taking up where he left off following his 14th major championship win in the US Open at Torrey Pines just over eight months ago. Winning.
He misses the adrenalin rush of competing but he is also feeling good after reconstructive knee surgery and confessed that while he be nervous when he rolls the Ferrari out of the garage against the unheralded Australian Brendan Jones today, he’s not here just to make up the numbers.
Asked if had ever turned up less than 100 percent certain about his ability to get the job done apart from the 2006 US Open at Winged Foot, where he missed the cut just weeks after his father’s death, he shook his head and said: “That was the only one.”
Successful surgery has given him more confidence in his ability to get through the ball onto his left side and it was interesting to note that he missed just one fairway on the front nine in his practice round yesterday.
“I feel a lot stronger in my left leg,” he said. “Both legs have been stronger than they ever have been. Stability is something I haven't had in years. So it's nice to make a swing and not have my - as I've said before - my bones move.
“Since I had no ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), no matter what I did, it was always moving. So I would try and hit into my left side, but the more I did it, the more it would move, so hence one of the reasons why you saw me jumping off the ball is to get off that leg. But it's nice to be able to hit into it for the first time.”
While Woods is defending the title he won for the third time with an 8 and 7 demolition of Stewart Cink on the adjoining Gallery Course last year, he has suffered his fair share of shock defeats.
He lost to Peter O’Malley in the first round in 2002 and to another Australian, Nick O’Hern in 2005 and 2007.
He doesn’t know Jones from Adam, despite literally running into him outside the locker room at the Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand several years ago. All Woods knows is that he will be nervous himself.
“The day I'm not nervous is the day I quit,” Woods said. "To me nerves are great. That means you care. I care about what I do, and I take great pride in what I do. Of course I'll be nervous. That's the greatest thing about it is just to feel that, to feel that rush.
“As much as you can have money games at home with the guys, it's not the same. This is what I do for a living, and this is what I've always wanted to do my entire life, and not being able to do it at the highest level was frustrating at times.”
What’s frightening for his rivals is that Woods has turned up in Tucson expecting to win the title for the fourth time in seven years but it remains to be seen how his leg stands up to walking a 7,800 yard course, designed for buggies. If he is to win the title, he must play it seven times.
After playing an early morning 18 holes, he said: “Well, it is a long walk, especially between holes. This course is spread out quite a bit. But hey, I feel good just being out here, just being able to get out there and walk the golf course. It felt great today. I was very, very pleased.”
Jones, a six time winner on the Japan Golf Tour, was delighted just to make the field and joked that if things aren’t going his way, he’s had plenty of advice on what to do to stop the greatest player of the modern era, though not from Stephen Ames.
“Pretty much everybody has said, if things don't go your way, just take out his knee,” Jones said with a grin.
Might not be a bad plan