The moment anyone with even the vaguest interest in golf has been waiting for is finally upon us. After eight long months without the greatest player, and the greatest attraction, the game has ever known, Tiger Woods returns tomorrow at the Accenture World Matchplay, apparently fully recovered from extensive knee surgery. He’ll certainly need to be in order to win this title for a fourth time, as that would entail playing a marathon six matches and up to 126 holes.
Having won the US Open on one leg the last time we saw him, only a fool would write off a successful comeback, but it will be a huge task. Because even at his best, this was the hardest title of the year to win. Eighteen-hole matchplay is the game’s ultimate leveller; a point proven most memorably in Woods’ previous defeats in this event to Australian journeymen Peter O’Malley and Nick O’Hern (twice).
By coincidence, the man facing the most unenviable task tomorrow is another Aussie with a similar profile; world no.64 Brendan Jones. Nobody who qualifies for this is a bad player, but its fair to say Jones is stepping up several levels from the usual opposition faced on the Japanese Tour. Nevertheless, some punters will doubtless be attracted by Jones’ odds of 10/3 to progress, given those previous upsets.
They may also cling to the hope that Woods is rusty after such a long break, and this must be a distinct possibility. Equally, until he’s regularly tested it under the most intense pressure, nobody can be totally sure Woods’ rebuilt knee is fit for the task in hand. Ernie Els suffered the same injury back in 2005, and has never really been the same player since. Els has admitted that he returned too quickly, and found himself tiring towards the end of rounds for some time. According to the man who knows his game best; Mark O’Meara; Tiger is fit, in form and raring to go. That sounds like a ringing endorsement, but I’ll still be surprised if he returns immediately to the type of virtually invincible form we saw in the two years preceding this injury break.
For that reason, plus the nature of the event and a difficult draw, I didn’t even consider backing Woods this week. As always in this event, my strategy is to throw a few attractively priced darts around the various sections of the draw. With nobody selected under 50/1, and four winning matches guaranteeing a semi-final and place payout, we can afford to have eight selections. In an ideal world, we’d end up with all four semi-finalists, though of course we’d happily take two and even one would offer a value position.