- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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AKRON, Ohio -- There was no sign of any trauma or drama. Tiger Woods went through the usual pre-tournament steps -- without limping -- Tuesday morning at Firestone Country Club, playing a nine-hole practice round and then rocketing practice balls afterward on the driving range.
Returning from an unexpected three-month break due to knee and Achilles injuries suffered at the Masters, Woods prepared for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational with a new caddie by his side and with a business-as-usual approach -- even if much has changed since the last time he was in public view on a golf course.
Woods has dropped from eighth to 28th in the world ranking, fired his long-time caddie, Steve Williams, and is attempting to come back at a place where he's enjoyed enormous success -- and one of his greatest failures as a pro.
And yet Woods sounded upbeat during a 25-minute news conference Tuesday morning.
Saying he hasn't felt this good in "years," Woods stuck to his typical mantra that nothing has changed regarding his expectations, despite not having finished a tournament since the Masters in April. At the Bridgestone, he is playing the first two rounds with Darren Clarke (1:40 p.m. ET on Thursday, 9:50 a.m. ET Friday).
"I'm just focused on trying to win a golf tournament," he said. "That's it."
It has been nearly two years since Woods last won, and he's dealt with swing and injury issues for most of the interim. A year ago at this very tournament, Woods seemingly hit rock bottom when he shot 18-over par and finished 30 strokes behind winner Hunter Mahan at a tournament he's won seven times.
A week later, he began working with instructor Sean Foley, and although there were signs of progress, Woods has started only seven tournaments this year, with the one time he contended coming during the final round of the Masters. At Augusta, he was tied for the lead before finishing in a tie for fourth.
His performance at the Masters was viewed as a turning point, a place where his swing finally looked and felt natural, something he could build upon.
Then two weeks later, Woods announced that he had suffered "minor" injuries to his left knee and Achilles tendon while hitting a shot during the third round of the Masters. He skipped the Wells Fargo Invitational, then said at The Players Championship that he returned too soon. He completed just nine holes in 42 strokes and withdrew from the Players.
"If I would have sat out probably another week or two, then I would have been playing throughout this stretch," Woods said Tuesday, "but the Players is a big tournament and I wanted to come back and play in it and probably shouldn't have."
Asked if he made the injury worse, Woods said, "Absolutely. I was back to where I was good to go and put myself back again."
Woods said that he decided to make sure everything was right before returning this time. Although he was vague, Woods said he started practicing "a couple of weeks ago" and that he had been chipping and putting prior to that.
Although Woods did not work with Foley before last week, he had practiced enough that he considered returning to the PGA Tour at last week's Greenbrier Classic.
"I was pretty close to being ready to and 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,' " he said. "So I listened, I listened to the docs and took another week and I'm thankful that I did because I feel great now."
After playing 18 holes on Monday at Atlanta Athletic Club, site of next week's PGA Championship, Woods played nine holes Tuesday morning before a small group of media and no spectators -- the tournament did not allow any. He then headed to the driving range, where there appeared to be no distress as he worked his way through the bag.
"I don't feel a thing," he 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."
Woods said he hit the ball well during practice leading into the Players and was encouraged about the way he was progressing before aggravating the injury again. Now he's had to start over.
"He's just got to get used to playing golf again," Foley said Tuesday. "I'm quite happy with what I'm seeing. ... I think that anybody out here should be limiting how many balls they are hitting. He's just trying to get quality work done. He's much healed, much better. We just have to slow our way into it, be smart about it."
Woods said that Bryon Bell, a childhood friend who now heads up his design firm, will not be his permanent caddie. "Have you seen his legs?" Woods said jokingly.
He offered no timetable on replacing Williams, saying that he would be looking for "an experienced caddie who's been there before and understands it, knows how to handle the situation."
Woods said there have been no shortage of applicants -- especially among those who are not professional caddies on tour. "A ton," he said.
Bell, who caddied for Woods some during his amateur days and three times as a pro (the last coming in 2005 at the Disney tournament) likely will be on the bag next week at the PGA Championship as well.
Although Woods is just getting back to competition, if he intends to play any more on the PGA Tour beyond next week, he will need to qualify for the tour's playoff series. Only the top 125 make the first tournament, the Barclays, and Woods is 133rd, 21 points behind Matt Jones.
A finish of 50th or better in the 76-player field would help Woods squeak into the top 125 with the PGA and the Wyndham Championship as the last qualifying events. To advance, Woods would need to be among the top 100 heading into the Deutsche Bank Championship, the top 70 before the BMW Championship -- where he won his last PGA Tour event in 2009 -- and the top 30 for the Tour Championship, which he missed last year.
"I'm ready to go," he said. "I feel good now. It was the right thing to do, and here I am."
Bob Harig is the golf writer for ESPN.com.
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