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Tiger fighting fit ahead of Clarke pairing

“I’m excited to compete, to play,” Woods said. “And hopefully, to win the tournament.”

Image: (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

TIGER WOODS WAS on the practice range just as the sun began to rise yesterday over Firestone, his first time on a PGA Tour golf course in nearly three months.

Even as the season heads toward a conclusion, Woods can’t wait to get started.

“I’m excited to compete, to play,” Woods said. “And hopefully, to win the tournament.”

That part about Woods hasn’t changed.

It’s everything else in the world of golf he once ruled that is so much different. Woods showed up at the Bridgestone Invitational at No 28, his lowest world ranking since the start of his first full season on the PGA Tour. He has a new caddie — at least temporarily — in Bryon Bell, a childhood friend who now heads up a design business that is not getting much work these days with a downturn in the industry.

He no longer is the dominant force in golf, having gone 20 months since his last win at the Australian Masters.

For Woods, however, the biggest change is how he feels about his health.

“The great thing is I don’t feel a thing,” Woods said.

“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, is that 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 like this, go practice and feel nothing and walk around and pretty much do anything I want on the golf course.”

Asked how long it has been since he felt so good physically, Woods replied, “Years.”

It almost seems that long ago since he was last in action. Woods, who was No 1 in the world at the Bridgestone Invitational a year ago, has not played since he walked off the course after nine holes May 12 at The Players Championship with recurring injuries to his left knee and achilles tendon.

He said he injured them during the third round of the Masters while hitting a shot an awkward stance in the pine straw on the 17th hole. Woods said if he had sat out the rest of May, he would have been fine the rest of the year, a lesson he learned this time around.

Woods wasn’t about to return until he was 100% healthy, and he is convinced of that now.

In the three months since he was gone, Rory McIlroy shattered his US Open scoring record to par, and good friend Darren Clarke finally won a major at the British Open at age 42. Steve Stricker has won twice to become the highest-ranked American.

Clarke, friends with Woods since his final major as an amateur in 1996, will be paired with him the first two rounds.

“Tiger has been the best player in the world for a very long time,” Clarke said. “He has been the guy over my career that has set the benchmark for all the rest of us, and personally he’s a good friend of mine. It is fantastic, I think, not just for you guys but for all of world golf just to see Tiger Woods back playing again. I’m sure he will be trying to get himself back up to where he has been before, and personally I don’t doubt he’ll do that.

“But for us to have a chance to compete against him again can only be good for the game in general.”

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Associated Press

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