MARANA, Ariz. (AP) — Tiger Woods has been ahead of schedule since he first began rehabilitation for reconstructive knee surgery.
Only when he returned to the PGA Tour did he fall hopelessly behind.
He wasn't even the first player to warm up Tuesday morning at Dove Mountain. That honor went to Phil Mickelson, who had never seen so many photographers on the range at the Accenture Match Play Championship.
What will happen Wednesday is a mystery to all — including Woods, who finished his practice round about an hour later than he expected, and walked into his press conference with an apology.
"Sorry I'm late," Woods said. "I forgot how long it takes to play 18 holes walking."
It was the first time he had walked a round of golf since the Monday playoff at last year's U.S. Open, where he beat Rocco Mediate for his 14th major, then shocked the golfing world by announcing he would miss the rest of the year after having surgery on his left knee.
The next question is how many holes he walks at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club.
Woods is fit enough — one caddie thought he belonged at the NFL combine — appears to be swinging better than ever and says his left knee is stronger than it has been in years.
But in this fickle format, not even good golf is enough to assure anyone — Woods included — of advancing to the next round.
"You have to be on your game right away," he said. "You have to make sure you bring the intensity and bring your game from the very first hole. Because if you don't, then I'll be going home."
This is the 10th time Woods has competed in the Accenture Match Play Championship, and he has reached the weekend only four times. Even when healthy — the year he won the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year — he lost in the first round to Peter O'Malley.
For now, he's simply thrilled to be playing.
Oddly enough, the last time he played essentially was match play. After 90 holes at Torrey Pines — four rounds and an 18-hole playoff against Mediate — they had to go to sudden death, and Woods won on the next hole with a par.
He raised hardly any questions about his game during his 18 holes on the Jack Nicklaus design, which features firm turf and greens with too many contours to count. On the eighth hole, caddie Steve Williams was about to suggest a 3-wood until Woods pulled off the cover of his driver and said he would "chip one" down there. It was hit plenty hard, prompting Williams to say, "Beautiful."
Even so, there is sure to be rust when he faces Brendan Jones of Australia in the first round.
"I've played one tournament in 10 months," Woods said. "I've simulated tournaments the best I possibly can, but it's hard to get the adrenaline up to where it's going to be tomorrow when I play. I'm trying to get into the rhythm of the round as fast as I possibly can.
"And hopefully, it will happen quickly for me."
Even those who have not taken eight months off are leery about this format.
Robert Karlsson is the No. 7 player in the world, yet he has never made it out of the first round in his previous three starts. Geoff Ogilvy has an 11-2 record in this tournament and won the season-opener at Kapalua, but he faces Kevin Sutherland, who has an 8-2 mark.
A year ago, two reporters looked at the bracket and tried to pick one match that would be a sure thing. Both settled on Vijay Singh over Peter Hanson, and sure enough, the Fijian won — in 19 holes.
"Sometimes you can play poorly … I remember one of the guys at La Costa one year shot 79 and won his match. So that can happen," Woods said. "But the reverse can happen, as well. The only thing you can control is what you do on the golf course yourself."
So far, there have been no complaints.
Woods says he had about 20 percent of his ACL five years ago, and none of it after stepping into a hole while jogging after the British Open two years ago. But after reconstructing the ligament, and going through a patient but rigorous rehab, he is feeling stronger than ever.
"I feel a lot stronger in my left leg," Woods said. "Both legs have been stronger than they ever have been. Stability is something I haven't had in years. So it's nice to make a swing and not have my bones move. … It's nice to hit into it for the first time."
Swing coach Hank Haney was pleased with what he saw.
"He looked great," Haney said. "I'm very pleased with how he did today. It's slowly coming around, and he's getting more consistent. His knee is not flopping all over the place. It's nice to see him not in pain, not hurt when he's playing."
It felt good to be back among his colleagues, and it was good to be back at work. When he pulled into the parking lot just after dawn, it felt like he had never been gone, just another day at the office. He changed his shoes in the clubhouse, went to the range, grumbled about photographers and played 18 holes without anyone in front of him.
But that was practice.
Every shot counts when he tees off against Jones.
"I'm looking forward to the rush tomorrow. I really am," Woods said. "Waking up tomorrow, and getting ready for my round, and getting focused, and coming out here, warming up and getting fired up. I'm really looking forward to that more than anything else. Because I haven't had that in a long time."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.