March 10, 2009

Comfortable Surroundings

In needs of reps, Tiger Woods is guaranteed four rounds on a course where he's already won three times

After making his return at the Match Play, Tiger Woods will play in his first stroke-play tournament of the season this week.

After making his return at the Match Play, Tiger Woods will play in his first stroke-play tournament of the season this week.

DORAL, Fla. (AP) -- Fans began showing up at Doral on Tuesday morning when it was dark. Several hundred surrounded the first tee when Tiger Woods finally arrived for another practice round at dawn.

And then he was gone.

Unlike his short-lived return to competition two weeks ago at the Accenture Match Play Championship, where he was eliminated in the second round, this disappearing act lasted only a few seconds as he walked through a thick strip of fog that stretched across the fairway.

Woods is assured of playing four rounds this week.

The CA Championship, which starts Thursday on the Blue Monster with a world-class field of 80 players, will be his first stroke-play tournament since he won the U.S. Open in June, a week before reconstructive surgery on his left knee.

There is no cut, which certainly helps.

"I've only played two tournaments in what -- 10 months? Not a whole lot of golf," Woods said. "So for me, I just need rounds under my belt, and this week will obviously be a very positive week for me -- four rounds and no cuts, which is exactly what I need."

It is a drastic change from where he was a year ago.

Woods had won seven consecutive tournaments over six months when he showed up at Doral last year with the golf world buzzing over the prospect of a perfect season. Geoff Ogilvy stopped all the hype by winning the CA Championship. Two weeks later, Trevor Immelman ended the discussion of a Grand Slam with a three-shot victory over Woods at the Masters.

And now?

Since leaving Doral last year, Woods has played 11 rounds of tournament golf.

Sergio Garcia has a chance to replace him at No. 1 in the world this week if he wins the CA Championship and Woods finishes 27th or worse. Woods has never been out of the top 10 at Doral, but no one really knows what to expect.

Two days in Arizona for the Match Play revealed more about the state of his knee than the state of his game.

"It was a big shot of confidence for me to get out there and play again and feel physically sound," he said. "It couldn't have been more positive, except for obviously getting beat in the second round. But from a physical standpoint, it was better than I thought it would be."

The Florida Swing traditionally begins the road to the Masters.

Woods is still backing the car out of the garage.

"It is much different because I had an idea of how my game was, and the things I needed to work on, where I needed to have my game go toward," Woods said. "Right now ... I don't really know yet. That's why it's nice to be able to have the four rounds here and get into a competitive stroke-play mode again. I've only had the two matches there in Arizona and that's it. It will be nice to get a better understanding of what I need to work on the next month."

And how soon does he need to know where his game is?

"The next couple of weeks would be nice," Woods said.

At the Match Play, Woods received an ovation just for walking onto the range. Two dozen photographers captured him pulling a wedge from the bag.

Some of that energy was missing Tuesday. After playing 18 holes -- the final 14 with Mike Weir, who will play with Woods and Robert Karlsson the first two rounds -- Woods had a news conference and joined a crowd on the putting green.

Everything was back to normal.

Then again, it is rare to see one All-Star athlete wake up at dawn to watch another one practice. But there was former Orlando Magic guard Penny Hardaway trudging along in the dew-covered rough to watch Woods play nine holes.

"I'm here for the tournament, and for Tiger," Hardaway said. "Tiger, first. I don't usually get up this early, but I will for Tiger."

Getting far less attention was Ogilvy, who is emerging as a big-tournament player, if not a big-time player. The former U.S. Open champion won the Match Play two weeks ago, and with a victory at Doral can join Woods in two categories -- the only players to defend a World Golf Championship event, and win consecutive WGC titles.

"Tiger has taken away from every other golf story in the last few months, which is fair enough," Ogilvy said. "He's the biggest story in golf when he's playing, and when he takes eight months off, it's obviously a big story."

The 80-man field -- the largest in the 10-year history of this event -- consists of the top 50 in the world rankings, and top players from the money list on the PGA, European, South African, Japan, Asian and Australasian tours.

The last player to earn a spot at Doral was Davis Love III, all because Brett Quigley missed a 6-foot par putt on the final hole of the Honda Classic last week. Love went from an eight-way tie for 14th to a nine-way tie for 13th, giving him just enough room to take over the No. 50 ranking by .0009 points.

"It has not been much fun the last few years trying to get in events like this," said Love, who was 59th in the 64-man Match Play field. "But it is fun when you do accomplish a goal, even though it was by the skin of my teeth."

The next goal is the Masters. Love will have to win a tournament or stay in the top 50 for three more weeks.

Woods gets to return to Augusta National as long as he wants as a past champion. His goal is to figure out where is game is by the time he drives down Magnolia Lane next month.

But there is a trophy at stake, and that is not lost on him.

"I'm ready to win, yeah," he said. "That's why I'm here."