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The return of Tiger Woods

MARANA, Ariz. - Tiger Woods has been ahead of schedulesince he first began rehabilitation for reconstructive kneesurgery.

Only when he returned to the PGA Tour did he fall hopelesslybehind.

He wasn't even the first player to warm up Tuesday morning atDove Mountain. That honor went to Phil Mickelson, who had neverseen so many photographers on the range at the Accenture Match PlayChampionship.

What will happen Wednesday is a mystery to all -- includingWoods, who finished his practice round about an hour later than heexpected, and walked into his press conference with an apology.

"Sorry I'm late," Woods said. "I forgot how long it takes toplay 18 holes walking."

It was the first time he had walked a round of golf since theMonday playoff at last year's U.S. Open, where he beat RoccoMediate for his 14th major, then shocked the golfing world byannouncing he would miss the rest of the year after having surgeryon his left knee.

The next question is how many holes he walks at The Ritz-CarltonGolf Club.

Woods is fit enough -- one caddie thought he belonged at the NFLcombine -- appears to be swinging better than ever and says his leftknee is stronger than it has been in years.

But in this fickle format, not even good golf is enough toassure anyone -- Woods included -- of advancing to the next round.

"You have to be on your game right away," he said. "You haveto make sure you bring the intensity and bring your game from thevery first hole. Because if you don't, then I'll be going home."

This is the 10th time Woods has competed in the Accenture MatchPlay Championship, and he has reached the weekend only four times.Even when healthy -- the year he won the Masters and U.S. Open inthe same year -- he lost in the first round to Peter O'Malley.

For now, he's simply thrilled to be playing.

Oddly enough, the last time he played essentially was matchplay. After 90 holes at Torrey Pines -- four rounds and an 18-holeplayoff against Mediate -- they had to go to sudden death, and Woodswon on the next hole with a par.

He raised hardly any questions about his game during his 18holes on the Jack Nicklaus design, which features firm turf andgreens with too many contours to count. On the eighth hole, caddieSteve Williams was about to suggest a 3-wood until Woods pulled offthe cover of his driver and said he would "chip one" down there.It was hit plenty hard, prompting Williams to say, "Beautiful."

Even so, there is sure to be rust when he faces Brendan Jones ofAustralia in the first round.

"I've played one tournament in 10 months," Woods said. "I'vesimulated tournaments the best I possibly can, but it's hard to getthe adrenaline up to where it's going to be tomorrow when I play.I'm trying to get into the rhythm of the round as fast as Ipossibly can.

"And hopefully, it will happen quickly for me."

Even those who have not taken eight months off are leery aboutthis format.

Robert Karlsson is the No. 7 player in the world, yet he hasnever made it out of the first round in his previous three starts.Geoff Ogilvy has an 11-2 record in this tournament and won theseason-opener at Kapalua, but he faces Kevin Sutherland, who has an8-2 mark.

A year ago, two reporters looked at the bracket and tried topick one match that would be a sure thing. Both settled on VijaySingh over Peter Hanson, and sure enough, the Fijian won -- in 19holes.

"Sometimes you can play poorly ... I remember one of the guysat La Costa one year shot 79 and won his match. So that canhappen," Woods said. "But the reverse can happen, as well. Theonly thing you can control is what you do on the golf courseyourself."

So far, there have been no complaints.

Woods says he had about 20 percent of his ACL five years ago,and none of it after stepping into a hole while jogging after theBritish Open two years ago. But after reconstructing the ligament,and going through a patient but rigorous rehab, he is feelingstronger than ever.

"I feel a lot stronger in my left leg," Woods said. "Bothlegs have been stronger than they ever have been. Stability issomething I haven't had in years. So it's nice to make a swing andnot have my bones move. ... It's nice to hit into it for the firsttime."

Swing coach Hank Haney was pleased with what he saw.

"He looked great," Haney said. "I'm very pleased with how hedid today. It's slowly coming around, and he's getting moreconsistent. His knee is not flopping all over the place. It's niceto see him not in pain, not hurt when he's playing."

It felt good to be back among his colleagues, and it was good tobe back at work. When he pulled into the parking lot just afterdawn, it felt like he had never been gone, just another day at theoffice. He changed his shoes in the clubhouse, went to the range,grumbled about photographers and played 18 holes without anyone infront of him.

But that was practice.

Every shot counts when he tees off against Jones.

"I'm looking forward to the rush tomorrow. I really am," Woodssaid. "Waking up tomorrow, and getting ready for my round, andgetting focused, and coming out here, warming up and getting firedup. I'm really looking forward to that more than anything else.Because I haven't had that in a long time."

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