Originally created 10/18/01

Woods returns to tour after five-week break



LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- In morning darkness at Disney, Tiger Woods and Mark O'Meara changed into their golf shoes in the parking lot Wednesday and were headed to the first tee when two security guards asked for identification.

Woods, perhaps the most recognizable athlete in the world, held out his driver's license, but that wasn't enough. They wanted to see his PGA Tour badge.

"I don't have it," Woods said after a brief search through his pockets.

The guards looked at each other, unsure what to do next, and decided to let him through the checkpoint to the Magnolia Course at Walt Disney World.

"I think he's won this tournament a couple of times," O'Meara assured them. "He's a pretty good player."

The checkpoint is part of a new security measure at Disney, although the guards could hardly be blamed if they didn't recognize Woods. He returns to the PGA Tour for the first time in five weeks at the National Car Rental Classic.

Not even Woods is sure what to expect.

"I could come out a little rusty - it's part of taking time off," Woods said. "But I could turn that around and use it as a positive, come out fresh, hit the ball well and putt it well. You don't know until you get a chance to experience it."

Woods last played on tour at the Canadian Open, where he shared the lead after the first round but lost a ball in the trees and finished the week at Royal Montreal in a tie for 23rd, 10 strokes back.

He was in St. Louis for the American Express Championship when the tournament was called off because the terrorist attacks. He canceled his trip to Paris for the Lancome Trophy, and then the Ryder Cup was postponed for one year.

"Obviously, things weren't supposed to work out this way," he said. "It worked out the best for me because I had time to rest up physically, mentally and get things back in order."

Woods also took a five-week break at this time last year, returning to go 3-2 in the Presidents Cup matches. In fact, he has won five times when coming back from a layoff that lasted at least three weeks.

"I'm itching to get with it, go out there and compete," Woods said. "For me, five weeks is a long time. I feel like I'm mentally ready, physically ready and I just want to compete again, something I love to do."

Wednesday's practice round was hardly competitive, and not just because Disney is a rare tournament where carts are allowed in practice.

It was so dark at 7 a.m. when Woods, O'Meara and John Cook teed off that they couldn't see their drives down the first fairway. They went straight to the second tee instead of waiting for the maintenance worker to finish mowing the green.

Plus, there were no spectators. There are no tickets for the practice rounds, and Disney this year tightened its security by not allowing weekly ticket-holders onto the course until Thursday. With only two reporters and three photographers in tow, the 44-year-old O'Meara joked that it would be nice to play a tournament in front of so few people.

"You'll get that in six years," Cook replied, alluding to the Senior Tour.

They finished nine holes in 1 hour, 5 minutes (Woods took only 10 minutes longer to play an 18-hole practice round by himself last year) and were done by 9:45 a.m.

The real test starts Thursday, with a sizable gallery tagging along.

Four tournaments have been played since Sept. 11, although none featured golf's top drawing card. All spectators are subject to having bags checked, and that included the golf bags of Woods and O'Meara before they were allowed onto the course.

Woods already has had his share of problems. A man was arrested for boisterous behavior in Phoenix two years ago and was found to have a gun in his backpack. He was tripped up by an autograph hound at Pebble Beach this year and hyperextended his knee.

"The galleries are right next to you," Woods said. "That's one of the things we pride ourselves in, the accessibility of it. But that's also one of the dangers."

Is he concerned?

"No," he replied. "I've had to deal with this ever since I turned pro."

Woods, who already has clinched the PGA of America's player of the year award, will be trying to win for the sixth time this year, and the Magnolia and Palm courses have treated him kindly. He has won twice in five years, and a year ago tied for third when Duffy Waldorf had a 10-under 62 in the final round.

"I'm just going to go out there and try my best and see what happens," Woods said. "I'm swinging the club well enough to shoot halfway decent scores, but a tournament is a tournament."

A tournament is something he hasn't experienced in five weeks.