Even though Firestone Country Club, the site of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, was closed to the public today, the atmosphere was already buzzing with an extra jolt of excitement and intrigue early on Tuesday morning. Accompanied with swing coach Sean Foley and old-friend-occasional-travel-agent-turned-temp-caddie Bryon Bell, Tiger Woods was the first on the range to warm-up before heading to the tee to play nine holes with roughly a dozen reporters in tow. He returned to the practice tee and flighted some beautiful shots. I mean, just flighted. He looked good on the range, but everyone hits it well on the range. No trace of a limp all morning.
The interview room was a full house for the most-anticipated press conference in a while. Finally, we could ask about his health, his split with Steve Williams, his swing changes with Foley, etc. Without further ado, here are the least boring, most exciting, etc. highlights:
*On the state of his injuries: “I’m ready to go. Doctors gave me the clearance to go, so here I am. Started back practicing a couple weeks ago, which was nice. I was close to playing last week, but again, docs advised that maybe I’d want to take another week of training and really start pushing it pretty hard, so I did, and I feel good now. It was the right thing to do, and here I am.”
*On when he decided to return at Bridgestone: “It was borderline whether I was going to play last week (at the Greenbrier Classic). I was pretty close to being ready to go, and it’s like, hey, just give yourself some more days of hitting a lot of golf balls and get your body attuned to that and conditioned to that. So I listened, listened to the docs and took another week off, and thankful I did actually because I feel great now.
*On whether his leg feels 100%: “The great thing is I don’t feel a thing. It feels solid, it feels stable, no pain. As I said, 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.”
*On playing a practice round for the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club yesterday: “Well, it’s certainly way different than when we played in ’01. It’s way longer. David Toms holed it (on the 243-yard par-3 15th). Yesterday we played a center pin from the back tee, and it was 265 yards. Not too many par-3s you play at 265. It’s going to be a very trying test. I think there’s — if they play it all the way back from the markers, it’s seven par-4s over 450, so it’s going to be a pretty long test…But with it being so hot, the ball was flying, so drive the ball in the fairway, you’re probably a club longer just because of the heat, but still, it’s much, much longer than what we played in ’01.”
*You’re screwed if you’re in the rough at AAC: “If you drive the ball in the rough, you can’t get to the greens. It’s Bermuda, and it’s high enough where it’s going to sit down. It’s just that thicky Bermuda where it’s just thin enough where the ball just doesn’t sit up, it sits down every time, so you’re not going to get that kind of lie.”
*On when he started practicing again: “I was just chipping and putting. That was fine. I was able to do that for a long time. That’s when I was allowed to hit fuller shots and worked my way up through the bag, started creating shots, hitting different trajectories, different shapes, and then ultimately the driver doing the same thing, and then going out and playing holes. So that process takes a little bit. That was when I was kind of — a few weeks ago. I’ve chipped and putted for a while, and I hit something more than a chip and a putt. But then as I started feeling — the leg started feeling explosive again, had the strength, it’s explosive again, so that’s when I was cleared to go.”
*On when he began hitting driver: “A few weeks ago, two, three weeks ago, somewhere in there.” [Ed. note: I know I’m being picky and we can chalk it up to semantics, but on his website last week, Team Tiger said he’d “just recently began hitting practice balls.” I guess that meant two-to- three weeks. When I hear “just recently,” I think a few days, a week at most.]
*On whether his injuries went from “minor,” as they were described when first disclosed, to major: “It was minor, but I came back and I played at THE PLAYERS. If I would have sat out probably another maybe week or two, then I would have been playing throughout this stretch. But THE PLAYERS is a big tournament and I wanted to come back and play in it and probably shouldn’t have.”
*On swing changes with Foley: “I feel of late I’ve been hitting it more solid and hitting it more flush than I have in the past. I think those are some of the things that Sean and I have been working on are starting to click now and I am starting to really understand what he’s trying to get me to do. I had it at THE PLAYERS on the practice round was the best I had hit it in a long, long time, and then I got hurt. It was like, now we’ve got to lay off and come back and build up to that point again. We’ve had some good practice sessions of late, and just got to tee it up on Thursday.”
*On what could of prevented his leg injury: “Mechanics (early on) probably should have been a little bit better than what they have been.”
*On split with Steve Williams: “I thought it was time for a change. I felt that Stevie and I have had just an amazing run. 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.”
*On Stevie telling the press he wasted the last two years of his life with Tiger: “Well, that’s what he says and what he feels.”
*On when and how he broke up with Stevie: “We had a nice conversation. We did it after he completed play at AT&T National up in the boardroom, and it was a tough conversation, but we said what we needed to say to each other face to face and man to man.”
*On buddy Bryon Bell on the bag this week: “Bryon and I go way back. We’ve qualified for — we won the Southern Cal Am, won the U.S. Am, won I think at Torrey. So Brian and I are very comfortable out there on the golf course. I don’t have a permanent caddie. Bryon is just obviously an interim, and we’ll see going forward.”
*On what he’s looking for in his next caddie: “Someone that obviously understands the pressure of the game coming down the back nine, someone who probably has been there before and who understands it and can deal with that. It’s something that — I had Fluff prior to Stevie. He’s been there plenty of times with Peter, and obviously Stevie with Greg and Raymond, been there plenty of times. So an experienced caddie who’s been there before and understands it, knows how to handle the situation. That’s something that I will definitely be looking for.”
[Ed. note: My favorite for the job is now Tony Navarro, whom I happened to sit next to on the flight to Akron yesterday. When I asked him if Tiger had called yet, he said, “No…but I’ve gotten a lot of other calls (from people wondering).” The sense I got was that he’d really like to get that phone call. And I think he’d be a great fit — nice guy, straight-up, very professional, roughly 35 years of experience, knows when to talk and when to shut up, doesn’t strike me as a gossip, caddie for Greg Norman and of course most recently, Adam Scott, working for Angel Cabrera now, has two teen daughters so he has experience dealing with drama (ha!)]
[Ed. note update: On second thought — which was actually my first – I’m throwing my vote to John Wood, who currently caddies for Hunter Mahan.]
*On who’s applied for the open position: How many? I hear there’s been a few. People who are not caddies out here, a ton. So yeah, we’ve gotten a lot of interesting ones. Yes, a lot of interesting ones. But as far as timetable, I don’t have a timetable on that.
*Asked for names: “No.”
*On his expectations: “It doesn’t really matter what they think. I’m here to try and win the golf tournament. That’s what I’m focused on.”
*On his new Nike prototype shoes inspired by Nike Free Tech: “They feel comfortable. The Achilles was not the shoe, it was just obviously plenty of years of torque on the knee, and eventually it led to that. It was nice to try and get something that I felt comfortable in. The Free technology is something that I wear every day, and some of the things, some of the aspects, I love training in it, I love running in it, lifting in it, so why can’t I play golf in it. So eventually we got together and created this shoe, and walking out there on the golf course, it felt good to feel my foot activated, something that I hadn’t felt in a long time. That felt very good, so the whole chain was activated, something that I’d always felt off the golf course but not on the golf course.”
*On catching Jack Nicklaus’ majors record of 18 (almost got through 45 min presser without his catchphrase!): “Well, you’ve got to take it one at a time. That’s how I got to 14 is just taking it one at a time and trying to peak for each one. We get four chances to peak per year, and unfortunately I was only able to try and peak for one. Obviously my timetable isn’t very long to try and peak for the last one here, but it is what it is, and just try and get it going.”
*On when he’s last felt this good physically: Years, plural. Just plural.
Lastly, he’s excited to compete and play, and hopefully win. We’re excited, too. Let’s hope he’s healthy and ready, and his range play translates to the golf course in competition. What can we expect? Well, he’ll play four rounds! And better his 18-over performance from last year.
Tiger tees off at 1:40pm with Darren Clarke for round one on Thursday.
(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)