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Published: Sunday, 2/22/2009

Woods still No. 1 and golf's one and only

How does the Official World Golf Ranking work? Don't have a clue. What does the Official World Golf Ranking mean? That's easy. It means, welcome back, Tiger Woods. We've missed you.

Consider this: After his

astounding, one-legged playoff win against Rocco Mediate in last June's U.S. Open, Woods was, of course, ranked No. 1 in the world. He hasn't stuck a peg in the ground since, at least not in a competitive tournament round, and some eight months later Woods is still ranked No. 1.

That's how much golf needs Tiger Woods; the same way it needed Arnie in the early 1960s and then the Golden Bear and then Watson into the early '80s. Competition is fine, variety is the spice of life, the underdog is always a warm story, but golf is a star-driven sport and Tiger is the biggest star of them all.

The same guy, Padraig Harrington, won both major championships after Woods underwent season-ending knee surgery to repair a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament within eight days of his Open victory. Kenny Perry keeps winning and winning. Anthony Kim has fast approached hero status on the American sports scene. Camilo Villegas' popularity has swelled. Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh haven't skipped many beats.

Still, with the one-week exception of the Ryder Cup last September, the sport, without Tiger's presence, retreated into the shadows. Media coverage decreased dramatically. Television ratings became mere blips on the screen. Cash-strapped PGA Tour sponsors held their breaths.

Simply put, no sport is as

dependent on one man as golf is on Tiger Woods.

He returns this week to defend his title in the Accenture Match Play Championship at Dove Mountain in Arizona. Tiger is back and so is golf. That much is for certain.

What is less certain is how

effective Woods will be. When last he walked, or limped, upon a fairway, he had not only the ACL injury but two stress fractures in the same leg. There was a lot to repair and heal, and there is a lot that again could go wrong even though he said during a Friday conference call with media members that he is pain free for the first time in years.

His short game will probably be better than ever because that's all he worked on for weeks and weeks before getting the OK from doctors to take full swings. He is by all accounts bigger and stronger because he could work on weights, but not run.

The biggest challenge, though, will most likely not be physical, but mental, even for a man who might be the strongest-minded and strongest-willed player his sport has ever seen. He, and we, will get the answer to that question the first time Woods has an awkward lie that produces an awkward stance and demands an aggressive swing.

But he won't be easing his way back into the game. He isn't playing this week to get ready for the next big tournament. To Woods, this is the next big tournament.

"Nothing changes from every tournament I enter," he said of his motivation. "It's to win."

Why should that surprise anyone?

If he can win a grueling U.S. Open on one leg, grimacing in pain on shot after shot, he can win anything anywhere.

It's why he is the biggest star in his sport, if not all of sports.

It's why he can disappear for more than eight months and nothing changes. He was No. 1 then, and he is No. 1 now.



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