MARANA, Ariz. - He said it felt as if nothing had changed. But who was Tiger Woods kidding? Everything had changed in golf. He was playing again, winning again, drawing attention again to a sport that had gone into decline in his absence.
His first shot, a beauty that soared into a blue sky and landed on a fairway that was a slash of green in the desert wilderness, was announced by a shout, "You're back man! You're back."
And so he was, the No. 1 golfer on the globe, playing for the first time in eight months and as if scripted scoring a 3 and 2 victory over Brendan Jones of Australia in their first-round match of the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club.
Woods' last appearance may have been his most memorable when he won the 2008 U.S. Open in a 19-hole playoff against Rocco Mediate on June 16. Eight days later he underwent surgery on the anterior cruciate ligament of a left knee that visibly bothered him on every swing in that Open.
Woods' match yesterday was only one of 32, but it also was one of a kind.
Phil Mickelson, losing four straight holes, managed to beat Angel Cabrera with a birdie on the first extra hole; Pat Perez upset 2008 Player of the Year, Padraig Harrington, 1 up; and Charl Schwartzel of South Africa stunned Sergio Garcia, No. 2 in the world rankings, 1 up.
Yet no one else except Tiger seemed to matter on a day when the temperature in this foothill community north of Tucson reached 87 degrees. Tiger, as the shout affirmed, was back, drawing a media horde of more than 400 and a gallery of several thousand that tromped through the sagebrush and saguaro cactus.
Woods, dispelling any thoughts he might be rusty, opened with a birdie, hitting his approach to less than 5 feet, and followed on the 574-yard par-5 second hole with an eagle, Jones conceding Tiger's 6-footer. Two holes, two up, almost too easy.
"It felt like nothing had changed," Woods said. "I thought I'd be more nervous. I thought it would take a little longer to get into the rhythm of the round."
It was classic Woods. He barely acknowledged the cheers from the crowd packed around the first tee, peered toward his target and swung.
"Walking on the tee I was just in my own little world," he affirmed, "just trying to make sure that I knew what the [yardage] was to the bunker, trying to decide what shot I want to hit."
Told he made it sound as if it was just another shot, "Tiger responded, "That's what it is, really. Just because I've taken time off and away from a competitive environment doesn't change the nature of how you execute."
Woods had two eagles - he dropped a 19-footer on the 583-yard 13th - three birdies and three bogeys.
Jones seemed resigned to his fate. "I'm satisfied," said the Aussie. "I was beaten by the best player on the planet. Three and two to Tiger Woods? I'm pretty happy with that."