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Sorry PGA, Tiger is back and ready to roar
by Doug Ferguson

SAN DIEGO (AP)?

Dressed in a black rain suit, Tiger Woods ducked out from under his umbrella on the 13th tee at Torrey Pines and gazed at what was rumored to be the Pacific Ocean. All he saw Tuesday morning was a soupy fog.

"Can you believe this?" he said. "Perfect weather at every West Coast tournament, then I show up and we get this."

Out of competition for two months because of knee surgery, and the only red carpet rolled out for Woods' return was a mat to wipe his feet at the end of a soggy practice round on the North Course.

Not that Woods was complaining.

"I feel great," he said. "My knee feels great, and mentally I feel fresh."

Woods was back in his domain, a familiar silhouette outlined against dense fog that covered the cliffside course north of San Diego.

A steady rain, not to mention his 6:40 a.m. start, kept the crowds to a minimum. No more than 60 people were following Woods when he finished 18 holes in just over two hours.

Players walking to the range along a path next to the fairway stopped to watch him hit a 3-wood to about 12 feet on the par-5 18th hole. In the locker room, Paul Stankowski gave him a gentle tap on his derriere to welcome him back.

How long the love lasts is anyone's guess.

Woods brings a certain fascination to the masses, which is why television ratings are spiked whenever he plays - up 113 percent when he is in contention.

The PGA Tour is off to a great start. Ernie Els won the first two events to establish anew his rivalry with Woods. Vijay Singh won in Phoenix, Mike Weir in the Bob Hope Classic and Davis Love III at Pebble Beach with two great shots under pressure.

Still, most of the talk on tour has been dominated by when Woods will return.

No one holds that against him, especially not his peers.

Thanks to Woods, golf is more popular than ever. The PGA Tour has been able to negotiate mammoth TV contracts, which is why prize money has more than doubled since he showed up six years ago.

"He's my favorite player besides me," said Chris Riley, who grew up playing junior golf with Woods. "He gives the tour a lot of notoriety."

He also makes it a little tougher to win.

Len Mattiace was asked why there were a record 18 players who won for the first time on tour last year, and one explanation he gave was that some of the top players were not at their best.

"Tiger was great, but he didn't win nine times," Mattiace said. "What did he win, five times? Which is fantastic. If he wins 10, it takes five other potential winners away."

The gap between Woods and everyone else is as large as he wants. It was a gulf after 2000 when Woods won nine times and three majors. It only appeared to shrink when his victory count dipped, even though it was still higher than anyone else.

"When those guys play good, the gap is not very big," Thomas Bjorn once said. "But it's still there, because Tiger is capable of more things. There will always be that gap."

It appears more narrow now because Woods hasn't played, and because Els has won three of the first tournaments he has played around the world.

The curiosity is what happens now that Woods has returned from Dec. 12 surgery on his left knee to remove fluid and benign cysts in around the ligaments.

"I do have some catching up to do," Woods said as he left the course Tuesday, although he didn't sound as if he was in a big hurry. After all, the season-opening Mercedes Championships at Kapalua was the only tournament he had planned on playing.

He also has some catching up to do with Phil Mickelson.

Lefty caused quite a stir last week by saying that Woods has "inferior" clubs and he's the only player "good enough to overcome the equipment he's stuck with."

Mickelson later said he meant it only in jest, but it did not escape Woods' notice. After belting one drive on No. 5, he smiled and said, "Pretty good for inferior equipment."

The rest of his round looked as if Woods never left.

He hit every fairway, missed only two greens. Rain left so much water on some of the greens that Woods didn't bother to putt. He simply fixed his pitch mark - a couple of them within 3 feet of the cup - and picked up his ball.

"Straight up the hill. I would have made that," he said on one hole.

The fog grew thicker on the back nine, and there were a couple of holes where visibility was reduced to about 100 yards off the tee.

"Another shot out of sight," caddie Steve Williams said when Woods ripped another drive that quickly vanished into the white mass.

Out of sight, but never more back in the picture.

Media credentials for the Buick Invitational have more than doubled to 300.

In the lobby of a nearby hotel, a manager was on the phone Monday night trying to explain to a desperate customer that he had no rooms left.

"Tiger Woods is coming to town tonight," he said. "It's very busy."


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