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    • Tiger pain-free, but expectations tempered before comeback start

      Swing 'Looks the same as it did before,' says former world No. 1 at Congressional

    • Tiger Woods is making his first start since the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship in March. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)Tiger Woods is making his first start since the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship in March. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

    BETHESDA, Md. -- Tiger Woods smiled and declined to reveal the exact score.

    "I broke 50 for nine, first time, just like when I was 3," joked the one-time child prodigy who has turned into arguably the game's greatest player ever. "So I'm sneaking up on it. My prime's coming up."

    Of course, Woods was actually well into his 79-win prime when a pinched nerve in his back caused so much pain that there were days he couldn't even get out of bed before it forced him to have microdiscectomy surgery on March 31.

    So the expectations -- his own, as well as those of golf fans who have keenly felt his absence -- are somewhat tempered this week at the Quicken Loans National just as they were when Woods put pencil to scorecard for the first time since his operation and shot a score more akin to us mere mortals.

    When he tees it up with Jason Day and Jordan Spieth at 8:12 a.m. ET on Thursday, Woods will be playing for the first time since he grimaced his way through a 78 in the final round of the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship more than three months ago.

    "It's been an interesting ride," Woods said. "This has been quite a tedious little process, but been one where I got to a point where I can play competitive golf again, and it's pretty exciting."

    At the same time, though, the man-of-the-hour acknowledged that he probably wouldn't be playing at Congressional Country Club this week had he not been the tournament host at an event with a new title sponsor that benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation.

    The original target date for his return was The Open Championship, which will be played three weeks from now at Royal Liverpool where Woods won one of his 14 majors in 2006. But the doctors said the risk of further damage was "minimal" so the healthy Woods -- pain-free for the first time in "probably a good two years," he said -- welcomed the opportunity to get back into competitive shape.

    And for a man who values the majors above all others as he stalks Jack Nicklaus' record 18, this week might be just what the doctor ordered.

    "I always feel like there's a slight lag effect: You can have your game on the range but it might take a week or two weeks or having a scorecard in your hand for five or six rounds," said former U.S. Open champ Justin Rose, who was sidelined himself earlier this year. "... Sometimes it takes time to get the scoring head back on."

    Woods has shown incredible resiliency and determination throughout his career -- returning from a variety of ACL strains, sprained knees, stress fractures and now, back surgery to continue to dominate the game. This rehabilitation took considerable patience, though, as the 38-year-old Woods has learned he can't push his body like he did when he was younger.

    "When I blew out my knee and even had my Achilles' problems, I could still do things," Woods said. "I would still be able to function. This was different. Anyone's that's had any kind of nerve impingement, it's no joke. That part was relieved as soon as I got out of the surgery. That nerve impingement, that pain that I was feeling going down my leg was gone.

    "I've heard numerous people talk about it, and I've had people come up to me and say they had the same procedure and got their life back -- and that's basically how I felt."

    Still, Woods took things slowly. For the first two months, he had to content himself with putting on his backyard practice green.

    "I wasn't allowed to bend over and pick the balls out of the holes," Woods recalled. "So what we did is I kind of had a little creative idea is that we had normal-size holes in my back yards, and I sand-filled them. So I knew if the putt went in or not, but I never had to bend over and get balls out of the hole."  

    Chipping and putting came next, along with ice baths that were "no fun," Woods said, a series of regular MRIs and a diet of anti-inflammatory meals. Once Woods' doctors and physios gave him the go-ahead to hit full shots, he added roughly 10 yards every day or so -- being careful to watch for clues in his body.

    "Some days, we'll stay here for a couple of days and other days, you can go ahead and progress the next day," Woods said. "That's how it went to the point where I was out there hitting drivers a couple weeks ago, and then started playing golf."

    Woods said he and swing coach Sean Foley made a few "tweaks" in his swing but nothing that would be visible to the naked eye -- not even his.

    "We look at it on video, and what I'm feeling I'm doing, it looks the same as it did before," Woods said.

    Although there was a time Woods' 8-irons were only traveling 135 yards -- and his buddy John Cook, on the mend from back problems of his own, was hitting shots past him -- the former world No. 1 feels he's got his distance back in recent weeks.

    "Once I got back to where I was playing golf and knocking off rust and playing, shaping shots, looking at holes, strategizing how to play them, things started coming back quickly," Woods said. "Lo and behold, here we are."

    And not a moment too soon, as far as fans of the game -- both inside and outside the ropes -- are concerned.

    "I always felt if you win a tournament and Tiger is in the field, it makes it feel probably that bit more special," Rose said. "And just from an atmosphere point of view, yeah, definitely he brings out people to play, people to watch and that's always a fun environment to be a part of.

    "So from a player's point of view, you want to compete against the best, you want to play against the best and if you manage to beat the best, it's a great feeling."

    And make no mistake, Woods is focused on adding another victory to his pursuit of Sam Snead at the top of the PGA TOUR's all-time list. Right now, he's three back of Snead.  

    "It's just that it's going to be a little bit harder this time," Woods acknowledged. "I just haven't had the amount of prep and reps that I would like, but I'm good enough to play, and I'm going to give it a go."

    Tiger Woods on his recovery from back surgery before Quicken Loans
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      Tiger Woods on his recovery from back surgery before Quicken Loans

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