Ever the resident of some sublime golfing planet with a population of one, Tiger Woods walked into a coronation Wednesday under the weird impression he'd come just to hit an advantageous tee shot.
He came through a walkway that seemed eight months long, emerged onto the first tee and may or may not have heard the equivalent cheers that greeted both his name and that of his Accenture Match Play first-round opponent and soon-to-be victim by 3 and 2, Australia's Brendan Jones.
"Mr. Woods has the honors; play away, please," said the starter, and beneath a high desert sun that could chafe an iguana, Woods stood over his first PGA Tour drive since last June 16 at Torrey Pines in the U.S. Open., eight months and one day since surgeons reconstructed his left knee.
He backed off once, stepped back up there, blasted the thing and gave the club that familiar twirl that seems to translate into satisfaction. It wound up 301 yards up ahead on the right edge of the fairway, and after all the speculation and all the anticipation and all the noise, he'd been focused on bunkers.
"I was just in my own little world," he 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 hit a flat three-wood, draw the ball, trying to decide what shot to hit."
Off in a flourish with a birdie and a conceded eagle on the first two holes, steady in the middle while losing only one hole on the front nine and thrilling near the finish with a 19-foot eagle putt from fringe on No. 13, he ensured his clamber toward fitness would get at least one more day at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, and that it would involve a second-round opponent he scorched 5 and 4 in the second round in 2007, South African Tim Clark.
Then, with that bout secured, Woods headed toward elevation and ice, his knee's two latest friends.
"I'm very pleased at how it felt all day," he said. "I thought that it would be more stiff" on the No. 15 tee, which he accessed only after a long sit due to clogged course traffic.
It traveled the necessary 16 holes in the ligament heaven of Arizona, starting up the first fairway to an approach shot Woods would strike to within five feet. The defending champion and inveterate No. 1 golfer hurriedly went 2-up when his approach on No. 2 skied 236 yards and nestled in 5 1/2 feet from the cup, leading to eagle.
"His ball flight is different to pretty much everyone else's, and it was fun to see different trajectories that he hits the ball," said Jones, the world's No. 64 player and an eight-time winner on the Japan Tour who later added, "Yeah, he's Tiger, he does freakish stuff."
Jones did hang in, halving four holes and then halving the deficit, winning No. 7 when Woods couldn't get up and down from in front of the green, but Woods countered on No. 8 with a seven-foot birdie, then won No. 12 when Jones burrowed in the green-side fringe, and No. 13 with that eagle.
Down four holes with five to play, Jones did rise well above the road-kill level before Woods' closing 3 1/2 -foot par putt on par-3 No. 16 called off the festivities and led Jones to say, "I was beaten by the best player on the planet. Three and two to Tiger Woods, I'm pretty happy with that."