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Warren Bennett

Tiger Woods returns to action

Tiger Woods showed two sides to his game while practicing for his first tournament after a five-week layoff.

He was on the 165-yard third hole on the Magnolia Course at Disney World when he felt a strong gust of wind on his face. Instead of going back to his cart for a new club, he borrowed a 5-iron from John Cook and hit a majestic shot 3 feet from the hole.

Not bad.

But on the par-5 eighth, he hooked his drive so badly that Mark O'Meara chuckled.

``I've seen that before,'' O'Meara said.

Woods took the dig in stride and shot back, ``That's OK. I'll still get my 5, or 6, or 7.''

He made par.

The scores count Thursday when Woods tees off in the National Car Rental Classic, played with amateur partners for two days on two courses next to the Magic Kingdom.

Not even Woods knows what to expect.

``Sometimes taking a break ... you tend to forget a lot of your bad habits and hit the ball great, and putt the ball great,'' he said. ``You don't really know until you get out there and compete. That's one thing I'll have to feel out.''

The five-week break was not planned.

Woods was in St. Louis for the American Express Championship the day hijacked airliners plowed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The tournament was called off, and Woods canceled his trip to Paris the next week for the Lancome Trophy. That was to be a tuneup for the Ryder Cup, which was postponed a year.

The time off has served him well.

``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.''

He will be going for his sixth PGA Tour victory of the year, and Disney isn't a bad place for him to return.

He won the tournament twice in two great duels -- against the late Payne Stewart in 1996, and against Ernie Els in 1999 when Woods closed out the year by winning his last four PGA Tour events.

He was in position to repeat at Disney last year until Duffy Waldorf posted a 10-under 62 on the final day to move past Woods and Steve Flesch.

Waldorf hasn't won since then, and wants to find him game quickly so he can qualify for the Match Play Championship next spring and the Masters.

Others have a more immediate need for good results. With only three events left in the season, players like Paul Goydos (125), Woody Austin (132) and Steve Pate (152) are trying to finish in the top 125 on the money list to retain their cards for next year.

Charles Howell III, who started the year without exempt status, has earned $1.4 million. He can make it into the Tour Championship with a few more good tournaments.

``My first goal this year was conditional status, then it was to earn enough to earn a tour card for next year. The shot-in-the-dark goal was the Tour Championship,'' Howell said. ``That would make the whole year even more special.''

Woods, meanwhile, is getting ready for his usual end-of-the-season travels. After the Tour Championship in Houston at the end of the month, he goes to China for an exhibition, to Japan for the World Cup with David Duval, then the Grand Slam in Hawaii, the Skins Game in California and his own Williams World Challenge in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

The overseas events are still on, although Woods admits that could change depending on developments in the war against terrorism.

There were changes evident in the golf world, too. Security, already tight whenever Woods is on the course, has increased at every PGA Tour event since the Sept. 11 attacks with a ban on bags larger than a purse and random searches.

At Disney, not even the players are immune.

Woods found that out Wednesday morning when two security guards ask him for identification. He flashed his driver's license, but they wanted to see his 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.

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

How good he is after a five-week layoff will be determined over the next four days, although Woods has won five times when returning from breaks of 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.''


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