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Tiger Woods returns to golf at WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship

Follow sports long enough, and you grow accustomed to disappointment. And not just of teams that fall short, or idols who grow old. That's part of the competition. Heck, it's part of what keeps us coming back for more. This is more about the disappointment of greed. Of cheating. Of arrogance. Of performers who lack character, and characters who fail to perform. Of all the things we hope to escape, yet eventually find lurking on our fields and courts. Which is why you should appreciate today. It is why you should cheer a competitor's return. For in a disappointing world, Tiger Woods is one thing you almost always count on. This afternoon, Woods plays his first round of competitive golf in 244 days following reconstructive surgery on his left knee. He plays his second event in the last 10 months and, just like that, golf's landscape turns from Dorothy's black-and-white farmhouse to the colorful skies of Oz. "Let's be honest, the golf world needs Tiger," said former PGA Tour player and NBC analyst Roger Maltbie. "It needs Tiger desperately."

This is not a suggestion that Woods is some perfect embodiment of honor and fair play. He can be rather standoffish. He has often shown a temper on the course. And he protects his corporate image with an almost unnatural zeal.

We know nothing of his politics, and little of his personal habits. For someone who may be the most recognizable athlete on the planet, Woods has successfully kept the public at arm's length for a lot of years.

But, in ways that matter most, Woods delivers. He is the rare star who has kept his life free of distraction, scandal or unnecessary attention. And when he steps on the course, he performs. My goodness, he performs.

One day he will own a good portion of golf's most precious records, but Woods is more than that. He is moments and memories. A 21-year-old winning the Masters by 12 strokes. A 24-year-old winning the U.S. Open by 15 strokes. He is the Tiger Slam, and he is the guy who sat out for two months, then came back and won the U.S. Open on one leg. In a playoff.

"I think he's the best who's ever lived," former U.S. Open champion Johnny Miller said Monday on a conference call. "Tiger has done some stuff that is just crazy good."

And that's what makes his return in the WGC-Match Play Championship today such a captivating event. Even if you're not a Tiger fan, you understand his presence changes the entire outlook of the field. People tune in to see him win. Or they tune in to see him fail. Either way, they tune in because golf is way more enjoyable than it was the day before.

And that's not to suggest the dozens of other players on the PGA Tour are not worth watching. They are talented, and many of them are colorful. But it's hard to appreciate your Honda's efficiency when you know there's a Ferrari in the garage.

The big question today, of course, is whether we get vintage Tiger or some lesser variation. The handful of players who have joined him on courses in recent weeks say his game is as impressive as ever. And he certainly looked comfortable in Tuesday's early morning practice round at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club.

Still, there are issues. Woods has obviously not been in a competitive setting in eight months. He also has not walked this much. With a match-play format, he could have to play 72 holes on Saturday and Sunday if he's in contention.

During a conference call last week he said he was as curious as anyone to see how much rust remained on his game, but he insists he is physically ready to return.

"I feel a lot stronger in my left leg," Woods said after Tuesday's round. "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."

He is 33 now, and possibly in the prime of his career. Woods has won nine of the last 12 tournaments he has entered, and finished in the top five in the other three.

At the time he turned 33, Jack Nicklaus had 11 of his record 18 victories in the majors. Woods is at 14. Catching Nicklaus has gone from possible to probable. The bigger questions are when and where.

So the story picks up again today. There is no major on the line, but there is anticipation in the air. We've waited a long time to Tiger Woods back on a golf course.

Somehow, I don't think he will disappoint.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com

Tiger Woods returns to golf at WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship 02/24/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 9:02am]
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