Woods plays nine, shows no signs of limp

SAN DIEGO -- If there was anything wrong with his surgically repaired knee, an observer following Tiger Woods on Monday morning at Torrey Pines Golf Course would have had difficulty seeing it.

Woods hit the ball with authority and showed no hint of a limp during a dawn patrol practice round with PGA Tour player Bubba Watson and amateur Jordan Cox. Woods played just nine holes in preparation for the 108th U.S. Open, which begins Thursday.

"He never said, 'Ow,' to me, so it must be good," said Watson, a frequent early-morning practice partner of Woods. "Tiger always plays well."

Woods, who had knee surgery two days after finishing second to Trevor Immelman at the Masters in early April, did not play a full 18-hole practice round until June 4. He rode a cart that day with instructor Hank Haney.

On Monday, the two-time U.S. Open winner teed off just as dawn broke. Haney walked the front nine with him along with caddie Steve Williams. Cox, a wide-eyed sophomore from Stanford who made it through sectional qualifying last Monday in Northern California, got the practice round encounter of a lifetime due to his Cardinal connections.

"He played great," said Cox, who said Stanford golf coach Conrad Ray helped set up the practice round. "He looked good. He was hitting it really, really well. It was amazing."

A crowd that swelled to several hundred as it followed Woods might have thought the same thing about the No. 1-ranked player in the world.
By unofficial count, Woods made three birdies and one bogey, hit four of seven fairways and seven of nine greens. His birdie at the 515-yard par-4 fifth -- a par-5 during the PGA Tour's Buick Invitational event in January -- was particularly impressive. Woods hit an iron approach from the first cut of rough to 4 feet.

"He's got a whole career to worry about," Watson said. "I don't think he's going to mess it up. He pulled out of Memorial [two weeks ago] because he wasn't ready. If he wasn't ready here, he wouldn't show up. No matter what the course was, no matter what the crowd wants, no matter what the media wants. If he doesn't feel good, I don't think he's going to play. He's not going to end his career on some stupidity."

Woods, who won the Buick Invitational earlier this year for the fourth straight year and sixth overall, birdied the ninth hole, walked to the 10th tee with Williams, then shook the hands of Watson and Cox and ducked into the scoring area without comment. He later met Williams on the practice putting green and is expected to play another early practice round on Tuesday.

Asked if he could detect any rust in Woods' game, Watson didn't hesitate.

"Tiger never looks rusty," he said. "He's in a zone. It's a major. He loves this place. He loves golf. He's zoned in. He's ready to go."

But Watson could not resist a little good-natured jab.

"But he's getting old," he said. "He could only handle nine [holes] today."

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