MARANA, Ariz. (AP)—Tiger Woods felt like he had never been away.
He played that way, too.
Woods took five practice swings, slow and measured, settled over the ball and then backed away to make sure he was aiming in the right direction. Then he launched his 3-wood down the fairway and went back to work.
“Walking down the fairway, it felt like business as usual,” he said. “I thought I would be more nervous on the first tee. It just came back down to playing the game again, and that felt good.”
His game looked as good as ever.
Woods made a triumphant return to golf Wednesday in the Accenture Match Play Championship with a birdie-eagle start and a convincing victory that showed golf what it had been missing in the 253 days since he limped his way to an epic U.S. Open title.
The gentle fist pump returned when he hit 3-iron from 237 yards to within 4 feet for eagle. He struck another familiar pose by slowly raising his putter over his head as a 20-foot eagle dropped on the 13th hole.
The only attention paid to his left knee came after a lengthy wait on the 315-yard 15th hole. Woods stretched his legs, then grabbed a 3-wood and drove onto the green.
He never trailed Brendan Jones of Australia, closing him out with a par save from bunker to win, 3 and 2.
“He’s Tiger,” Jones said. “He does freakish stuff.”
Woods said he had looked forward to the rush of competing. It was as if all that time away from golf had been bottled up inside him. And then it came gushing out on a scorching day on Dove Mountain, where temperatures approached 90 degrees.
Fans packed into the bleachers around the first tee, with more lined up behind the ropes all the way to the green. Their cheers when Woods walked onto the tee could be heard all the way down the fairway.
“You are back!” one spectator shouted.
Was he ever.
First came an 8-iron to 5 feet for birdie. Then it was the 3-iron to 4 feet for eagle.
He won the first two holes before some rust settled in. Woods made three bogeys over his next five holes and was leading, 1 up, until he birdied the par-5 eighth with a 6-foot putt.
Jones never got any closer.
Woods had not competed since reconstructive surgery on his left knee a week after winning the U.S. Open. It was the third time in five years Woods had surgery on his left knee, adding to the mystery of whether he would be as good as the player who has won 65 times on the PGA Tour, including 14 majors.
“It held up,” he said. “It felt good.”
His return dwarfed everything else that took place in the first round at The Ritz-Carlton Club.
Stewart Cink was the second match out, and there were only a few dozen fans in the bleachers. His game with Richard Sterne was tied after 18 holes, so they headed back to the first tee—making Woods and Jones wait a few extra minutes.
This time, there wasn’t an inch of wood available in the bleachers. Fans stood four deep around the tee box, and they lined the ropes all the way to the green, some 460 yards away. It was a bigger crowd than when Cink played Woods in the championship match last year.
“I just told everybody on the first tee that he’s waited eight months to play,” Cink said. “He can wait two more minutes.”
Cink wound up winning his match, one of five that required overtime.
Phil Mickelson, who blew a four-shot lead at Riviera and rallied to win three days ago, did it again. He was 4 up on Angel Cabrera with five holes to play until the Argentine caught him, but Lefty birdied the 19th hole.
Other top players were not so fortunate.
Sergio Garcia, the No. 2 seed, lost to Charl Schwartzel on the 18th hole when the Spaniard hit into the bunker and made bogey.
Third-seeded Padraig Harrington, who won the British Open and PGA Championship while Woods was away, arrived at Dove Mountain having missed his last two cuts. This was a short week, too, for he lost to Pat Perez on the 18th hole.
Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas, the faces of the next generation hopeful of challenging Woods, had the shortest days. Kim never lost a hole in beating Lin Wen-Tang of Taiwan, 7 and 5, while Villegas beat Rod Pampling, 7 and 6.
They were on the same course, but it sure wasn’t center court.
Cink was surprised to see even a few dozen people in the bleachers when he began his match.
“They got there early and claimed their seats for Tiger,” he said. “Because really, Tiger’s match was the only one that mattered today.”
Woods, as he has done so often in his career, gave the crowd what they came to see.
And even Jones, who appeared to be overwhelmed, got caught up in the commotion.
“As I walked off the first hole, there was just mayhem—media, and everyone was just running,” Jones said.
After Woods birdied the first hole, Jones overhead a reporter say, “Another nine holes to go for 10 and 8.” Jones did his best to make the match last as long as it did. After a lengthy wait on the 315-yard 15th, Woods hit 3-wood onto the green, and the Australian followed with a shot even closer, making eagle. Still, Jones knew his stay at Dove Mountain was not going to be a long one.
“I really wouldn’t be betting against him,” Jones said. “He hit some shots other people can’t hit.”
Next up for Woods is Tim Clark, who beat Retief Goosen. Clark lost to Woods in the second round two years ago, only it wasn’t quite the circus it is now.