Golf: Woods gearing up for return

Mark Garrod

The good news for Tiger Woods as he counts down to his return to golf tomorrow is that he cannot be as bad as he was in the same event last year.

Never has the former world number one looked so at odds with his game and himself as he did in finishing joint 78th out of 80 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron 12 months ago.

This time there are only 76 players in what will be his first tournament since he limped out of the Players Championship after nine painful holes in mid-May.

Having missed both the US Open and The Open to rest his injured left knee and Achilles tendon, Woods has dropped to an almost unbelievable 28th on the rankings.

But the most important thing to him is that he says he feels healthier than he has done "for years".

After nine holes of practice yesterday on the Firestone course where he won seven out of nine times before last August's nightmare - it came as his divorce was being finalised - the 14-major winner tried to give the impression of being a new man.

He needs to be - his last victory was November 2009, his last major win June 2008 and, having fired caddie Steve Williams for supposed disloyalty, he is seeking to making a fresh start.

First the injuries.

"I'm good to go," said Woods, who will partner Open champion Darren Clarke in the first round. "The docs gave me the clearance, so here I am.

"I started practising a couple of weeks ago, which was nice, and I was close to playing last week, but again the doctors advised me that maybe I should take another week.

"I started pushing it pretty hard (in training) and I feel good now.

"The great thing is I don't feel a thing - it feels solid, it feels stable, no pain.

"That's one of the reasons why I took as long as I did to come back. I want to get to this point where I can go ahead and start playing golf again like this.

"It's been a very long time and it feels good to go out there today and hit balls and feel nothing and pretty much do anything I want on the golf course."

Asked if there was any rust in his game to remove he replied: "I actually didn't feel any.

"I still haven't been in a competitive environment yet, so that's a totally different atmosphere.

"But the shots felt very crisp, very clean - I was very pleased. My start lines were good. They were nice and tight, which was good."

On his expectation levels for his first week back he added: "Same as always. Hasn't changed." He hopes to win, in other words.

And on the split with Williams, who carried his bag for 13 major triumphs, he added: "I felt it was time for a change.

"Stevie and I had an amazing run - he has helped my career and I've helped his - but I felt very comfortable with the move."

He is using old friend Bryon Bell in what he terms an "interim" measure and has not made any decision yet on who takes over his bag on a long-term basis.

"Bryon and I go way back and we are very comfortable on the course. I don't have a permanent caddie and we will see going forward."

He said he met Williams face-to-face to tell him their partnership was over. "It was a tough conversation, but we said what we needed to say."

The New Zealander reacted by saying he felt like he had wasted the last two years of his life - the two years, of course, in which he stuck by the 35-year-old after his sex scandal.

"Well, that's what he says and what he feels," answered Woods, clearly not wanting to discuss the matter at length.

© Press Association