LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Tiger Woods showed up Wednesday. He remained upright. And he seemed upbeat about his famous back.
“I feel good,” he said.
Part of his pre-PGA Championship enthusiasm is linked to this: Woods said the back issue that led to his withdrawal after nine holes Sunday at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational was not related to his March 31 microdiscectomy.
Woods said his “sacrum went” out when he fell back while hitting a shot from the lip of a bunker Sunday, leading to a pinched nerve and spasming. He said his physical therapist popped the sacrum back in and the spasms went away and he regained range of motion. The sacrum is the large, triangular bone at the base of the spine and at the upper, back part of the pelvic cavity.
“It was a different pain than what I had been experiencing, so I knew it wasn’t the site of the surgery,” Woods said after playing nine practice holes at Valhalla with newly named assistant Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker, Davis Love III and Harris English. “It was different and obviously it was just the sacrum.”
The therapist is with him here – not just for treatment but for emergency reasons. “If it does go out, he’s able to fix it,” Woods said.
While Woods said he is still working to improve his game and back as he competes, he’s not in pain and isn’t taking medication. He said he’s looking forward to “getting back to my agility work” and building back swing power and speed. “It’s just going to take more time,” he said.
His Sunday WD led to speculation about whether he would play this week the season’s final major championship. He said he decided to come here because his range of motion was good Tuesday afternoon.
“My firing sequence was back to normal,” Woods said. “If my sequencing is good, then it’s all good. ... As you saw out there, I got my speed, my power, and I just need to obviously keep moving.”
Woods looked all right during the nine holes, then chipped and putted while walking the back nine. He hit more than one ball off several tees on the front nine – some great, a couple more than a little off line – and spent considerable time on short game. The real answers, of course, will come Thursday, Friday and beyond.
Asked to assess his play Wednesday, he initially said, “I played all right. Nothing great. It’s only Wednesday.” A couple of minutes later, he sounded more optimistic. “I felt pretty good about how I played and the shots I hit,” he said. “But I need to get more feel for how this golf course is playing.”
Yes, he does. Nine holes of practice isn’t a proper warmup, whether healthy or not.
His caddie Joe LaCava mapped the course before his arrival, but Woods said he will have to learn more as he plays Thursday’s first round. One reason is because he views Valhalla as a “totally different golf course” from when he won the PGA here in 2000. The greens and chipping areas are something new to his eye.
“I have my book from 2000,” he said. “It’s useless.”
Given his substandard play in his three tournaments since returning in late June – plus the Sunday back problem – it might be a stretch to think he can contend. On top of that, he hasn’t had a top 10 finish on the PGA Tour since August 2013.
Still, Woods set his sights high.
“Try to go out there and win this event,” he said. “That’s all I’m focused on.”
To do so, he’ll have to shoot much lower scores than he has been lately. The greens are soft and the rough on the sides of the fairway is not high.
“You’re going to see some pretty low scores,” said Woods, who shot 18 under par here 14 years ago.
Wednesday, we saw a circus-type atmosphere when Woods played in front of a large, vocal gallery. Spectators weren’t bashful about expressing their feelings. On the first hole alone, fans yelled:
“Hey, Tiger, thanks for coming!”
“Beware the ailing golfer.”
More than 20 reporters in a national press corps, plus a throng of photographers, followed him. Ryder Cup vice captain Andy North walked in the group. Normally the only Wednesday that matters is on the first day of the WGC Match Play. But his arrival was met with an electricity normally not felt on rehearsal days.
“It feels great to be back here,” he said. “The fans are enthusiastic. They’re loud. They’re into it.”