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Woods will return from 8-month layoff next week



Reed Saxon / AP Enlarge

LOS ANGELES - Eight months after winning the U.S. Open on one good leg, a healthy Tiger Woods is returning to golf.

Woods said on his Web site yesterday that he will defend his title next week in the Accenture Match Play Championship, believing his reconstructed left knee and his game is good enough to win.

"I'm now ready to play again," Woods said.

The Match Play Championship in Tucson begins Wednesday.

Players whom Woods has beaten so often while compiling 65 victories were happy to hear he was coming back.

"He was ready to go weeks ago," Stuart Appleby said at Riviera. "I don't think he needs to do a couple of laps around the track. He'll be on that horse and he'll be whipping it."

The timing for Woods to end his 253-day break from competition could not be better for the PGA Tour, which has seen television ratings plunge after the world's No. 1 player had to miss the second half of the season, including two majors, the Ryder Cup and the FedEx Cup playoffs.

"We are delighted that Tiger is returning to competition and look forward to watching him compete next week," commissioner Tim Finchem said in a statement.

The last shot Woods hit for real was a short par putt on the 91st hole of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where he defeated Rocco Mediate in a playoff to capture his 14th major, which Woods described as "probably the best ever" under the circumstances.

He had surgery after the Masters last year to repair cartilage damage in his left knee, and suffered a double stress fracture in his left leg while preparing for his return.

He limped badly over the final few days of the U.S. Open, later saying the swelling was so bad at night that he couldn't see his knee cap. A week after winning, he had reconstructive surgery, the third operation on his left knee in five years.

He began hitting short irons toward the end of December, and friends such as Mark O'Meara and John Cook said he had been playing plenty of golf over the last few weeks at his home course in Florida.

The last big obstacle to his return was the birth of his son, Charlie Axel, on Feb. 8.

"Elin and our new son Charlie are doing great," Woods wrote. "I've enjoyed my time at home with the family and appreciate everyone's support and kind wishes."

Woods will be under even greater scrutiny when he returns at Match Play, a tournament that is unpredictable even with two good legs. The eight-month break is his longest ever, and there are questions of rust and how much he has modified his swing after the knee surgery.

Even so, swing coach Hank Haney said last month that Woods would not return until he thought he could win.

"He's not looking to just participate," Haney said last month.

Woods is a three-time winner of the Accenture Match Play Championship, but no tournament is more unpredictable. Woods once lost in the first round to unheralded Peter O'Malley of Australia. His return could last only one day. He could also advance to the weekend, where Woods might face as many as 36 holes a day.

"I didn't think he would return at Match Play because the media would be all over him if he lost in the first round," Appleby said. "But if Tiger lost in the first round, it would mean nothing to him."

Woods also has an endorsement contract with Accenture, and he was to be in Marana, Ariz., next week for a corporate dinner.

Kenny Perry believes expectations will be minimal - Woods' first tournament in eight months, and the fickle nature of match play.

"I think it's awesome," Perry said. "The economy is down. We need something to boost us up. And there's going to be a gazillion reporters there, so it will be fun to be around."

He also figures that Woods will do his part.

"I think he'll be ready to rock," Perry said. "When he comes back, he's always raring to go. He must be spittin' nails right now. I think he'll be better than ever. He'll probably kick our butts like crazy. Let's face it. People play differently when they're playing him."

Unless someone withdraws - Justin Rose is one possibility because his wife is expecting their first child any day - Woods will play Brendan Jones of Australia in the first round.

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