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'Rusty' Tiger still is plenty strong

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

MARANA, Ariz. – The logjam on the 15th hole was three groups deep, so Tiger Woods helped himself to a chair. For the previous three hours Wednesday, he had reintroduced himself to the golf world that felt empty without him and introduced his new left knee to the rigors of the long, tortuous course at the Accenture Match Play Championship. The man needed a rest.

So for 22 minutes, he idled in that chair. He chatted with his opponent's caddy and lubricated his dry lips and tied both shoes and did some impromptu Gatorade product placement and tapped his foot and fiddled with his hands, and then he stepped up, drove the green of a 343-yard par-4 using a 3-wood and walked down the fairway without the slightest bit of incredulity, lest he chip away at his own mystique.

"He missed the hole," said Tim Clark, playing behind Woods and admiring the shot. "He must be a bit rusty."

In truth, there was a helping of tarnish on Woods' game in his first tournament since doctors reconstructed his knee eight months ago. Yet for those mistakes, each greeted by Woods with an audible expletive and the complementary club abuse, the old Tiger – the real Tiger – peeked through often enough to send a few hundred volts down the rest of the tour pros' spines.

Amid the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club's desert course that looked straight out of the final scene of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," Woods was some of each in beating Australian Brendan Jones 3 and 2 and setting up a second-round match Thursday against Clark, a 33-year-old South African who ousted Retief Goosen. Big names fell around the tournament, including two of the other No. 1 seeds, Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia. Match play, ever fickle, bites indiscriminately.

Woods isn't impervious to it, either, having three times lost at the Accenture to less-heralded Australians. Jones, a long hitter, couldn't channel his countrymen's mojo, not when Tiger started the match with a booming drive, hit his approach to 5 feet and holed a birdie putt to go 1 up.

As Woods circled the first tee, he munched on a banana and comported himself as if this were any other tournament. It wasn't. Over his eight-month rehab, Woods channeled all of his competitive energy into righting his body, and finally, with it ready to burst through his pores, he could unleash his reconstructed self.

Poor Brendan Jones.

"Walking on the tee, I was just in my own little world," Woods said, "just trying to make sure that I knew what the number was to the bunker, where the wind was coming from, slightly off left, am I going to the hit a flat 3-wood, draw the ball, trying to decide what shot I want to hit."

In other words, Woods went through his normal routine, which didn't seem so normal on account of the layoff. By the second hole, it started feeling better. Long drive. Five-iron from 237 feet out to within sniffing distance of the cup. And like that, a practical tap-in eagle on a 576-yard hole and a 2-up lead.

"He's Tiger," Jones said. "He does freakish stuff."

He's human, too, and for the next nine holes, he and Jones played even. Woods left tee shots right. Irons fell short. Putts stopped inches in front of the hole. From 148 yards on the 10th hole, Woods lifted a wedge high into the sky only to see it skid back down the hill in front of the green.

"Thought I had it," Woods said to his caddy, Steve Williams.

"Two more yards," Williams said.

Those two yards will return in the coming weeks, when Woods regains the touch on all his shots before the Masters beckons. It's downright frightful to think that anything remains missing considering the deft chip he hit to help win the 12th and the 19-foot eagle putt on No. 13, which prompted the day's first fist pump and left Jones shaking his head.

After the round, Woods talked about how he never had played such slow greens at a PGA Tour event, and how he planned on icing and elevating his knee to keep it from swelling, and how this was just the first step back.

Who knew baby steps looked like leaps across the Grand Canyon?

"He's amazing, isn't he?" someone from the gallery asked Jones.

"Yeah," Jones said, "he's pretty good to watch."

Rust and all.