HE CAME AND WENT. One practice round instead of the usual two. An easy win, in a match settled on the 16th hole, in the first round. A drubbing, in another match settled at 16, in the second round of the Accenture Match Play Championship. Tiger Woods shook some hands, talked to the mikes for a minute or two, and he was gone, off to Orlando, back to Elin, the kids, the dogs and the Isleworth range. It was nothing like a vintage performance. But life at home, Woods said, has never been better. You've never seen him so happy, not in defeat. ¶ Woods is expected to play the event at Doral in Miami next week and Arnold Palmer's tournament at Bay Hill in Orlando in late March. He'll play to win, of course. That's his professional M.O. But the real question is this: At the Masters in April, will we again see the legend grow? Will Tiger do his thing? Millions of greedy sports fans watch with one expectation—to see victory. He's spoiled us. ¶ Based on last week's glimpse, on a contrived course called the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club in a desert development called Dove Mountain outside Tucson, Tiger's game is not yet whole. He says his surgically reconstructed left knee—a body part that could sue its master for abuse if it had a better lawyer—is fine. Tiger's gait was measured and sometimes slow on the hard, sunbaked fairways. (His caddie, Steve Williams, was often 50 yards ahead of him.) But you never saw Tiger grimace in pain. There was ice for the knee after his rounds but no buckling during them. It was nothing like the last time Woods made swings in anger, at Torrey Pines last June during his epic U.S. Open win. ¶ Eight months is a long time for a pro golfer to be away from pro golf. Golfers change. (The exception to the rule is Bernhard Langer.) Woods might be a little smaller in the chest now, though it's hard to say. He wasn't wearing the formfitting golf shirts he used to wear way back when. (You know: 2007, '08.) He looks slightly more round-shouldered at address, a half step toward Vijay Singh and away from Camilo Villegas. At times last week his last look at the hole before putting was more of a blink than the stare down that Bob May, Rocco Mediate and other victims know so well. Of the 60-something full swings Woods made—and he'll make thousands more before the year is over—only two were all-out, from-the-cleats kill jobs, both with cushions of sand holding up his ball; one was from a fairway bunker, the other from a fried-egg greenside lie.
O.K., we are surely ascribing too much importance to this 32-hole golfing sprint. But we have to make up for lost time! (Golf Channel was going crazy last week: Tiger has made his first appearance. It's 7:02 a.m. mountain standard time. He appears to be wearing a blue shirt. Hold it, he's drawing closer. It's a striped shirt. We can confirm that. The dominant color is blue. And here comes Stevie, looking trim, very relaxed. This is going to be quite the practice round.) As it played out, the Match Play was nothing more than a first spring training outing. Still, we are duty bound to report that Tiger was wearing those little ankle socks last week—pads, as they're known in the trade. His were white, with a black swoosh.
Actually, Tiger was a little different last week. He's 33 now, raising children, designing courses, making friends in high places. (At the presidential inauguration Woods invited the President for a game at some unspecified time.) In Arizona, Woods said the trio of teen sensations who will play in the Masters—Danny Lee of the U.S., Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Ryo Ishikawa of Japan—were "good for the game" but belonged to "a different generation" than his own. Tiger has always liked the phrase back in the day. He sounded as if he's looking forward to becoming one of golf's grand old men, like Palmer was when Woods turned pro, like his father was at the time of his death in 2006. Adulthood suits him.
There was none of the smoldering intensity we all saw at Tiger's last 2008 appearance, but why would there be? You can't begin to compare an Accenture Match Play Championship on the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club course in Manara, Ariz., with a U.S. Open played on a seaside public course that's down the road from your childhood home and oozing good memories.
During a 15-minute wait on the 15th tee in his first-round match against Brendan Jones of Australia, Woods sat on an ice chest, took off his shoes, did some stretching and talked about snowmobiling with Jones's caddie, Ron Levin. (Snow machiner Todd Palin did not come up, but snowmobiler Mark O'Meara did.) In the second round, in his match against Tim Clark of South Africa, Woods holed an 18-yard bunker shot for a birdie on 14 without even a modest fist pump. Of course, he was three down at the time. That score will dampen your mood.
But when Clark missed his birdie putt and lost the 14th, Woods suddenly was only two down with four to play. From years of Tiger-watching—going back to the 1996 U.S. Amateur at Pumpkin Ridge, when Tiger axed away at Steve Scott's gaudy lead—you knew what would happen next, right? Woods is like a heavyweight champion drawing first blood. The crowd sees it and smells it, the energy level changes, the corner men (rules officials, photographers, caddies, TV cameramen) start frothing, and the only person thinking straight is the once, current and future champ. Fifteen at the Ritz-Carlton is a drivable par-4 and Tiger had the honor and Clark's a short hitter. You had to feel for the little South African. Super effort, but he was going down.
What were the chances of Woods—the seize-the-day Woods we all know—hitting it O.B. there? Zero. But that's what Woods did, a wicked push that started right and went paragliding from there. Usually his "baby draw" into a fade wind is his most dependable shot, summoned on his personal golf-swing iPod with one easy click. Not this time. Just a big, old, garden-variety blocked shot. There were no f-bombs. He didn't bury the head of his driver. He didn't glare at the idiot who said, "Get in the hole." (On Golf Channel, being watched by millions across the world at that moment, the droll Nick Faldo said, "Good call, mate.") Tiger's do-over from the 15th tee was a Woodsian blend of art and science, driver to 20 feet. But it was one swing too late, and then (more weirdness) he didn't hole the par putt.
Golfers find it hard to putt well on greens they don't like, and Woods clearly disliked the mammoth ones at Dove Mountain. We know this because he calmly called them the "slowest greens" he had ever putted on Tour and "a little severe" in slope. For Tiger, that's screaming. Especially when you consider the course was designed by his boyhood hero, Mr. J.W. Nicklaus, the only player who has won more majors than Tiger. The tally, you likely know, is 18--14, meaning Woods could, as a matter of arithmetic, tie the game this year.
But Tiger's mantra has always been one at a time, and the greens that occupy his mind are at the first stop: the massive, severe superfast greens of Augusta National. Those he likes. Those he can putt. Like nobody else, except maybe Arnold and Jack, back in the day.
Woods, as you would expect, came to the desert prepared. The subject of his suntan is one of Tiger's long-standing press-tent bits, and before he played his first competitive shot of 2009 Woods said he was happy to be out on Tour again "working on my farmer's tan."