AKRON, Ohio (AP) — Tiger Woods was on the practice range just as the sun began to rise Tuesday 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 percent healthy, and he is convinced of that now.
He said he started hitting balls a couple of weeks ago, without giving an exact date, and that he got the itch to start playing soon after. Woods said he thought about playing The Greenbrier Classic last week, but decided to wait a little more.
What gets him excited?
"Trying to beat these boys," Woods said. "That's fun. Getting out there and trying to win golf tournaments, being there with a chance to win, whether you win or fail. Just being there is just 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. That's fun."
In the three months since he was gone, Rory McIlroy shattered his U.S. 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."
Woods still managed to make news while not playing when he fired his caddie, Steve Williams, after a 12-year partnership during which he won 13 majors. For all the talk about disloyalty — Williams caddied for Adam Scott at the U.S. Open, then again at the AT&T National without seeking permission — Woods said only that it was "time for a change."
"I felt that Stevie and I have had just an amazing run," he said. "Steve is a hell of a caddie, there's no denying that. He's helped my career, and I think I've helped his, as well. We've had a great partnership for 12 years, maybe a little bit more than that, won a bunch of tournaments. I just felt it was time to change things up a little bit. I felt very comfortable with the move."
He did not bite when asked about Williams' comments to a New Zealand television station that he had wasted the last two years of his life.
"That's what he says and what he feels," Woods said.
In his place is Bell, who last caddied for Woods at the 2005 Disney Classic, and previously worked for Woods when he won the 1996 U.S. Amateur and the 1999 Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines.
Woods said Bell is only a fill-in — "Have you seen his legs?" he said — and there no timetable for getting a permanent replacement. The only sense of urgency for Woods is his results.
Because he has missed so much golf — and didn't play all that great early in the year — he has plunged to No. 135 in the FedEx Cup standings. He needs to crack the top 125 after this World Golf Championship and the PGA Championship to qualify for the playoffs. He could take care of that with a top 10 finish at Firestone, where only once in his career — last year — has he finished lower than fifth.
"I really hope that he will play well," said PGA champion Martin Kaymer, who played with Woods at TPC Sawgrass, at least for nine holes. "We need him. We really need him. He's the best player who ever played that game, and obviously he's struggling a little bit at the moment, but I just hope that he can go back to basics and show us how great of a golf player he is."
Whatever rust Woods has won't be known until Thursday, when his shots count.
He played nine holes Tuesday, often hitting more than one shot when he wasn't pleased with where it was going. But it was only practice. Woods won't get a good sense of where his game is until the first round Thursday.
"I'm just focused on trying to win a golf tournament," he said. "That's it."