- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Get ready - Tiger Woods hasn’t felt this good in a while. Or maybe ever.

After an eight-month layoff following reconstructive ACL surgery on his left knee, the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer returns to competition Wednesday at the Match Play Championship in Marana, Ariz.

“Well, I feel great,” the 33-year-old said after Tuesday’s practice round at the Dove Mountain resort. “I mean, I didn’t think [my knee] would feel this good before the surgery or even just after the surgery, because I hadn’t known what it’s like to feel this way. … Both legs have been stronger than they ever have been. 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. It’s been so long. So to have it feel this healthy and this solid and secure, man, it’s a great feeling.”

In Woods’ last tournament, he hobbled away from Torrey Pines in mid-June after collecting his 14th major championship on one leg at the U.S. Open.

Less than a week later, Woods underwent season-ending surgery on the joint that had plagued him for years and left him with stress fractures in his tibia.

Predictably, the sport suffered in his absence. Without Woods, golf’s television ratings plummeted. Neither the season’s final two majors nor the Ryder Cup came close to matching the numbers generated by Woods’ U.S. Open triumph. And it didn’t help that his convalescence coincided with a spiraling economy. Among the notable financial casualties was Woods’ longtime sponsorship deal with Buick; the company ended its $8 million-a-year deal with Woods to cut costs.

“I hope he stays healthy because it’s evident the game needs him,” said Phil Mickelson, the world’s third-ranked golfer. “The economy has been struggling, the sponsors have been struggling and to have him back is so critical for the sport.”

Regardless of the outcome, Woods’ comeback is arguably golf’s story of the season. That tale will begin unfolding Wednesday when top-seeded Woods faces little-known Australian Brendan Jones in the opening round of the event, featuring the top 64 players in last week’s world rankings.

The question is, what incarnation of Woods will be on display? How much competitive rust, if any, will Woods have? How will the leg hold up on a course that measures 7,883 yards (par 72) and routinely features long walks between greens and tees? Has his swing changed?

“I’m as curious as you,” Woods said. “I’ve played one tournament in 10 months. I’ve had plenty of rounds. I’ve simulated tournaments the best I possibly can, but it’s hard to get the adrenaline up to where it’s going to be [Wednesday] when I play. … Getting out there and competing again and feeling the adrenaline and feeling the rush of competing and playing again - all of that, I haven’t done that in a while.”

Perhaps not. But virtually all players polled said they expect Woods to be better than ever. And why not? Everything about his past and his nature suggests Woods’ return is likely to yield a season of success.

First, Woods has been here before and has responded with stunning performances. Twice in his career, he has followed knee surgeries and extended absences with immediate victories, winning the 2003 Buick Invitational after offseason arthroscopic surgery in 2002 and winning last year’s Open last year after enduring a similar procedure following the Masters.

Sure, this latest surgery was far more invasive, but it’s also expected to provide a permanent solution, not temporary relief. And he’s also taken a longer recovery sabbatical. While the joint stabilized, he honed his short game.

“My short game has gotten a little better,” Woods said. “I’ve got a few more shots just because I was able to spend so much time on it.”

Further, Woods delayed his return until after the birth of his second child, Charlie Axel on Feb. 8. He elected to spend the last two weeks with Charlie and his wife, Elin, though he acknowledged he was ready to return earlier.

Second, if Woods has to tweak his swing to reduce stress on his anchor or drive leg, there is evidence he will make a successful transition. After all, he’s overhauled his swing twice already. The powerful (but inconsistent) move with which he dominated the amateur ranks and the 1997 Masters gave way to a lag-reduced, more accurate action under Butch Harmon, yielding the Tiger Slam (2000-01) and seven more majors. Then came the flatter, short-iron-friendly Hank Haney model, which produced his six most recent major titles.

“As far as the golf swing, I’m doing the same things with [Haney] I was trying to do before, but now I have a leg to do it on,” Woods said.

That brings up a key point. Woods has stated time and again that he’s played with pain in his left knee for years. Yet that didn’t stop him from collecting 65 PGA Tour titles as the pain increased from tendinitis to a torn ACL to stress fractures.

“If they fixed the knee, and that’s always an ‘if’ with any surgery, he’s going to be a better player, at least technically,” said Woodmont Country Club teaching pro Wayne DeFrancesco, a staple on Golf Digest’s list of the top-100 instructors. “If he was that good in pain, he’s going to be that much better without it.”

Particularly with the driver, the club that places the most stress on the knee and the one impacted the most by Woods’ injury. As he became increasingly unwilling or unable to attack the ball because of his knee, he lost both distance and accuracy with his driver, plummeting from 28th on the tour in total driving in 2006 to 45th in 2007 to 124th last season. In effect, Woods has dominated the game with 13 clubs in recent years, playing without the reliable assistance of the club many consider the second-most important in the bag.

Finally, Woods’ most valuable attribute as a golfer has been his mental focus and indomitable will.

“What ultimately separates Tiger from the competition is his mind,” Jack Nicklaus said last year after Woods’ won the Open.

His peers couldn’t stop Woods on one leg. Why would anyone doubt him on two?

“I’m looking forward to the rush [Wednesday], I really am, waking up… and getting ready for my round and getting focused and coming out here, warming up and getting fired up for my match against Brendan,” Woods said. “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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