All eyes on Tiger
Arizona - Tiger Woods and his surgically repaired left knee will be the center of attention on Wednesday as the golf superstar ends an eight-month layoff at the Accenture Match Play Championship.
The 14-time major champion breathed new life into the golf season with a simple announcement on his website last week: "I'm now ready to play again."
They were the words golf fans - not to mention sponsors and tournament organisers - had been longing to hear.
Woods will face Australian Brendan Jones, the last player to make the field at No. 64 in the world rankings, in the opening round.
Jones said he's just trying to enjoy his unaccustomed moment in the spotlight, but he knows his opponent is the man everyone will be watching.
"Tiger went out, he had his injury when he was the best in the world and he has come back when he's the best in the world," Jones said. "And everybody's wanting to know, 'Is he going to be the same Tiger? Is he going to be better?'
"Time is going to tell on that, but any chance you get to play Tiger is a wonderful opportunity."
Woods is the overall top seed of the tournament. He is joined by Spain's Sergio Garcia, Ireland's Padraig Harrington and Fiji's Vijay Singh as a top seed, each of the four heading one of the four brackets of the draw.
Garcia will face No. 63 Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, Harrington takes on American Pat Perez and Singh will play Denmark's Soren Kjeldsen in the first round.
Phil Mickelson, fresh from defending his USPGA Tour title in Los Angeles on Sunday, is in the same bracket as Singh and will take on Argentina's Angel Cabrera.
When Woods tees it up at the elite World Golf Championships event at the Ritz Carlton Golf Club Dove Mountain, it will mark his first competitive outing since his epic US Open victory at Torrey Pines in June.
Eight days after subduing Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole Monday playoff, Woods had surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
The timing of his comeback was also dictated by the birth of his second child with wife Elin, but now that she and baby Charlie Axel are settled, Woods is ready to test his knee and his game.
"Nothing changes from every time I enter, it's to win," Woods said last week. "So that's my intent, to go in there and win."
To go all the way, Woods would have to play the equivalent of seven rounds in five days - with the 18-hole quarter-finals and semi-finals both held on Saturday and a 36-hole championship final on Sunday.
"It's serious," said South African Ernie Els, who had to overcome ACL surgery. "You're walking a lot. Nearly every shot you hit, you come down on your left knee. I had swelling in my knee after I played, for a while, and I had to ice it down. I imagine Tiger will have some, too."
As to whether two 36-hole days would be to much, Woods said: "Well, I'd like to have that problem."
Woods is the defending champion, posting an emphatic 8 and 7 victory over Stewart Cink last year at the nearby Gallery Golf Club.
He also won the title in 2003 and 2004 at La Costa near San Diego, a back-to-back run that followed his first-round ouster in 2002 by Australian Peter O'Malley.
"Anybody can beat you in match play," said Australian Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 Match Play winner. "You can play well and lose. But if he starts winning and gets his bearings, we've all seen it before. He usually goes all the way."
Sweden's Henrik Stenson, who won the Match Play title at the Gallery in 2007, said the Dove Mountain layout has a similar feel.
"The biggest change is the greens and the undulations on the greens," Stenson said. "It will be a harder course to score and not as many birdies. You have to be very careful on some of the greens. You can get it to a couple of feet away and then all of a sudden you are 30 feet away."
Any questions posed by the new Jack Nicklaus-designed course pale, however, in comparison to the questions surrounding Woods.
"He has been missed," Stenson said. "There is a lot of hype and it is countdown by the minute or second until he hits his first shot. It will be interesting to see how good form-wise he is.
"He has proven everyone wrong before when they have thought he might not be in good shape and then he goes out and wins tournaments... I don't know if eight months without tournament play will affect him. That is left to see for Wednesday and the rest of the week."
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