Woods missed one fairway on front nine

MARANA, Ariz. -- If you were buried in a bunker for the past nine months and emerged Tuesday in the Arizona desert to watch Tiger Woods play a practice round, it might be understandable to wonder what all the fuss was about at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club.

The sun had barely risen above the mountains when Woods arrived just after 7 a.m. local time. The camera crews, photographers and media members quickly added up to more than the number of balls Woods hit on the range.

And then it was off to the first hole, where Woods launched his first tee shot of his first official practice round since undergoing knee surgery in June.

Wonder how many people were blogging about Ben Hogan's return from a serious auto accident in 1950?

More than 100 media members were awake earlier than normal to see the world's No. 1 golfer in action for the first time since he defeated Rocco Mediate in a playoff at the U.S. Open in June.

And a person who had no clue about Woods' inactivity would have a hard time recognizing that anything was different about his game.

"Why would it be different?" said Hank Haney, Woods' swing coach. "That's what I don't get. I'm not saying he is going to be better. He won 10 of the last 13 tournaments. I'm just trying to understand the logic of how he could be worse."

Haney noted, however, that Woods' swing is different.

"He is swinging with an ACL. The knee was always moving. Now it's strong."

Woods played the practice round for the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship by himself, his first look at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain, where the tournament moved after being played down the road the past two seasons. Steve Williams, Woods' longtime caddie, was with him. So were agents, publicists, security personnel, marshals and an ever-growing gallery.

It didn't take long for an itchy photo finger to draw Woods' ire. He missed his only fairway on the front nine when a photographer's shutter went off too soon, drawing a "Not in my swing!" from Tiger, which had Williams reaching for another ball. On the tee it went, as Woods pumped it down the middle, the other ball left to the cactus.

By the time Woods reached the ninth hole, the grandstand behind the green was nearly full, and some 500 spectators followed. Some early-season PGA Tour events would have killed for that kind of gallery during actual tournament play. There was a mini-roar when Woods knocked his approach shot to within 2 feet.

"This is pretty common for a practice round," said Joe Corless, who heads up security for the PGA Tour whenever Woods plays. "Especially as it goes on, as it gets later. But the first hole? It's never like that."

Perhaps that is why Woods stayed away until Tuesday. He knew he'd be facing a circus upon his return, and sure enough, that is what he got.

"I came here for a Tuesday practice round, and as I'm walking to the range, I've never seen so many cameras and photographers and so forth, especially that early in the morning, waiting for Tiger to get there," said Phil Mickelson, who was the only other player warming up on the range when Woods arrived.

"It's amazing to me what he has done for our sport, and for us to have the most recognizable athlete in the world playing our sport is so fortunate for all of us. And we've all been able to benefit from it, and to have him back is awesome.

"We are going to have more of a challenge winning golf tournaments certainly, but also it will be rewarding if we're able to win those."

There was some mild surprise that Woods elected to play just a single practice round at a course he had never seen. Although he didn't play the round at warp speed, he still played at a pretty brisk pace and took most of his time trying to get used to the slow but undulating greens. Haney said Woods spent the weekend practicing in Las Vegas before arriving in Arizona.

He might not have spent much time practicing on site, but Woods has gotten in plenty of practice at home since he began hitting balls again in December. In fact, Haney said, Woods has prepared far more this time around than he did before the U.S. Open after arthroscopic surgery following the Masters.

"It's much different now," Haney said. "He never hit balls [after a round] since Carnoustie [the 2007 British Open]. He was always in pain, and golf is such a mental game. And heading into the U.S. Open, he could never hit more than 40 balls during any practice."

Woods didn't appear to be in any pain Tuesday. He hit plenty of awe-inspiring shots.

And when it was over, less than four hours after it began, Woods was but a day away from his first-round match with Australia's Brendan Jones.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.