By Marla Ridenour
Beacon Journal sports writer
Tiger Woods could be at a disadvantage as he jumps back into the fray at this week’s $8.5 million Bridgestone Invitational.
Not just from the rust of an 11-week injury layoff, but also from the recent firing of caddie Steve Williams.
But Woods seems to have regained some of his swagger, which could make up for the loss of the once-symbiotic, 12-year relationship with Williams. During a news conference at Firestone Country Club, Woods showed glimpses of his old intimidating self — curt, cagey and confident.
Idle since withdrawing after nine holes of the Players Championship on May 12 because of left knee and Achilles issues, Woods also returned to form Tuesday in another regard.
He went out before sunrise to warm up for a practice round at Firestone Country Club, keeping to his longtime crowd-avoiding custom even though the public wasn’t admitted to the course.
Teeing off just before 7 a.m., Woods hit nearly every tee shot left and his putting was erratic, an observer said. But after finishing off the South Course’s front nine in 90 minutes, Woods seemed thrilled about the state of his troublesome left leg and to a lesser extent, his game.
Asked when was the last time he physically felt this good, Woods said, “Years. Plural.” Pressed to be more specific, he said, “Just plural.”
Woods found the perfect tune-up for next week’s PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club in the Bridgestone, a no-cut World Golf Championships event he has won seven times. He has played only six tournaments this year and missed the U.S. and British opens after suffering an injury at the Masters Tournament, then reaggravating it by rushing back for the Players Championship.
“The great thing is I don’t feel a thing,” he said of his leg. “It feels solid, it feels stable, no pain. It feels great to go out there today and hit balls like this, practice and feel nothing and walk around and pretty much do anything I want on the golf course.”
He was close to coming back at the Greenbrier Classic last week in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., but said his doctors advised he would be better off with another week of training. On Monday, he played a practice round in Atlanta before heading to Akron.
Woods will tee off No. 1 at 1:40 p.m. Thursday with British Open champion Darren Clarke. Clarke still sees reason for the public to root for Woods, even after the sex scandal two years ago that led to Woods’ divorce.
“Beneath it all, all the stuff that’s happened, self-inflicted or otherwise, he’s essentially a really good man,” Clarke said. “He’s been a tremendous friend to me. There’s a real good side to Tiger Woods nobody gets a chance to see.”
Besides his physical ailments, critics have wondered whether Woods has lost some of his mental drive. Once the world’s No. 1-ranked player, Woods has fallen to No. 28. He hasn’t won a tournament since the Australian Masters in November 2009. He is 135th in the FedExCup standings, but he has three weeks remaining to make the top 125 and qualify for the playoffs. His pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 professional majors has been stuck on 14 since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
Last year at Firestone, Woods finished tied for 78th in a field of 80, 30 strokes behind winner Hunter Mahan. Before that, he had never finished worst than tied for fifth on the South Course, that in the 1998 NEC World Series of Golf.
Asked what excites him now about the sport, Woods said: “Trying to beat these boys. Being there with a chance to win, whether you win or fail. Just being there is such a rush and it’s just so much fun. Trying to pull off the shots that you’ve done in practice when it matters the most, see what you’ve got.”
Woods didn’t shy away from questions regarding Williams, but he didn’t offer much insight into their parting. Woods said he told Williams in the boardroom at Aronimink Golf Club after the final round of the AT&T National, which benefits Woods’ foundation. Williams is now working for Adam Scott, as he did in suburban Philadelphia.
“I thought it was time for a change,” Woods said. “Stevie and I have had just an amazing run. Steve is a hell of a caddie. He’s helped my career, and I think I’ve helped his as well. I felt very comfortable with the move.”
Williams’ wife is a close friend of Woods’ ex-wife, Elin Nordegren, which likely contributed to the change on Woods’ bag.
“It was a tough conversation, but we said what needed to say to each other face to face and man to man,” Woods said.
Asked to responded to Williams’ comment to Television New Zealand that he felt he’d “wasted the past two years” of his life, Woods said, “Well, that’s what he says and what he feels.”
Woods said Bryon Bell, a childhood friend and now the president of his design company, will caddie for him at Firestone, but that Bell is only an interim choice. “No, no. Have you seen his legs?” Woods joked. During Woods’ fall from grace, it was reported that Bell had set up trysts with several of Woods’ girlfriends.
As for Williams’ replacement, Woods refused to give names of those who have applied but laughed at some of the non-professionals who have inquired.
“People who are not caddies out here, a ton. We’ve gotten a lot of interesting ones,” he said, smirking. “Yes, a lot of interesting ones.”
Woods didn’t subscribe to the theory that he might miss the input of Williams, at his side for 63 victories and 13 majors, saying, “as a player you make the last call.”
But there’s no doubt that the tour has missed Woods.
“I’m a player, but I’m also a fan and to have him be a part of the field, golf is better with him here,” said Scott Stallings, the last addition to the Bridgestone after winning Sunday at the Greenbrier Classic.
“I really hope he plays well,” said 2010 PGA champion Martin Kaymer of Germany. “We need him. We really need him. It will be great if he comes back and shows us all or proves that he’s the best player who ever played the game.”
Clarke even believes that Woods could contend this week at Firestone.
“You can practice all you want, but you don’t know until you put yourself in a competitive situation how good your game is,” Clarke said. “It’ll be very interesting the first two rounds. Knowing Tiger like I do, I don’t think he would come back until he was ready, both physically and mentally.
“I think Tiger Woods could be a hard man to beat this week because of his record around this golf course. He loves it so much and he’s played so well here before. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him have a really, really good week.”