- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2009

LOS ANGELES | Tiger Woods has been on the golf course every day, either practicing or playing, hitting his full array of shots without fear of pain shooting down his left leg or bones sliding out of place.

The next step is taking that inside the ropes. And not even Woods is sure what to expect.

“I’m as curious as you,” Woods said Friday during a conference call. “The feeling of adrenaline, the rush of competing and playing again, all that I haven’t done in a while.”

Woods will have gone more than eight months - 253 days, to be exact - without hitting a shot that counts when he returns from reconstructive knee surgery next week at the Match Play Championship just north of Tucson, Ariz.

His goal is to win. That hasn’t changed. The surgery in June was to repair his knee, not his heart or his mind. But as confident as Woods feels about his game, his main concern is how sharp he will be in his first tournament since the U.S. Open last June.

“It’s one thing to do it in a practice environment at home against my buddies for a little bit of cash,” Woods said. “It’s a totally different deal to do it at a PGA Tour event against the best players in the world. I’m excited to get out there and experience that.”

But at least he’ll be doing it on a healthy knee, saying “it’s been years” since he was without pain.

“One of the great things coming back is my bones aren’t moving anymore,” Woods said. “It’s a very comforting feeling hitting a golf ball without your bones sliding all over the place. That’s been very exciting to play that way, and I’m looking forward to the season.”

Swing coach Hank Haney said the only change in his swing will be the finish, noting that Woods finally has a strong left knee that will not give way and “flop all over the place.”

The only noticeable change might be his golf bag.

Woods ended his nine-year endorsement deal with Buick because of the automaker’s financial problems. He said he will have AT&T on his bag as an extended partnership with the telecommunications giant. AT&T is the title sponsor of his PGA Tour event in Washington and a major sponsor of his foundation.

He also has an endorsement with Accenture, the sponsor of the Match Play event, although Woods said that wasn’t behind his decision to return.

The knee has felt strong enough that he could have played earlier. All he waited on was the birth of his sson, Charlie Axel, making sure his wife and baby were healthy before he went back to work.

“It was making sure the family was all good with the birth of Charlie and making sure Elin was OK, Charlie was OK, everything was safe and sound on the home front,” he said. “Then the focus was on playing again.”

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