MARANA, Ariz. -Last seen amid the Torreys in June, Tiger Woods materialized yesterday morning amid the saguaros, luring one of the thicker practice-round galleries.
Eyeballs resumed their craven need to tag along as he played and walked the 18 holes of the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club northwest of Tucson on the eve of golf's most momentous return since Ben Hogan at Riviera in 1950. The droves followed him past the prickly pear and the barrel cactus and the dreaded cholla that jumped out and stabbed one guy in the shoulder, and they often marveled at the guy in the blue-striped shirt and gray slacks.
"Give me a break!" one exclaimed when Woods' tee shot on the par-three 16th hole tore through the sky and obediently took up shop 3 feet from the cup.
"You see the shape on that baby?" another said.
"Welcome back, Tiger!" said a man along the 17th fairway, and in a seldom-seen twist, Woods turned and nodded appreciation.
"Sorry I'm late," Woods later said in a raging fire-code violation of an interview tent. "I forgot how long it takes to play 18 holes walking."
For the first time since he won a 19-hole U.S. Open playoff at Torrey Pines on June 16, he walked the 18 at a PGA Tour event on the eve of his return set for today in the 64-man Accenture World Match Play Championship. His absence to rehabilitate from left-knee surgery had lasted eight months, but PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem cracked, "What was it, four, 4 1/2 years now?"
Approaching his first-round match against No. 64 Brendan Jones of Australia, Woods said, "I'm looking forward to the rush tomorrow, I really am, waking up tomorrow and getting ready for my round."
He said his wife, Elin, had dialed him around dawn to ask how it felt to re-enter the tour setting, and he'd told her, "Nothing feels any different."