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Tiger Woods, without pain in a 'long time,' starts another road back from injury

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BETHESDA, Md. - About two dozen photographers lined up in a row on the range Tuesday at Congressional, a reminder that golf is different when Tiger Woods is around.

And that was before Woods even arrived to hit balls for 35 minutes.

He was last seen wearing golf shoes on March 9, when he walked gingerly off the golf course at Doral with back pain that had been bothering him off and on since August 2012 and finally reached a point that he chose surgery over playing two majors.

Woods returns at the Quicken Loans National with big hopes and realistic expectations — and with no pain.

Asked for an opening comment on where he is with his recovery, Woods smiled and said, "I'm right here."

"It's been an interesting road," 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."

Dressed in black, with shoes the company colours of his new endorsement deal (MusclePharm), Woods turned the routine into news. After each booming tee shot, he casually walked forward a few paces, stooped to pick up his tee and to reload for the next shot.

Woods, who had back surgery on March 31, said the British Open was his target all along. He was candid in saying he might not be playing the Quicken Loans National — this is the first year for a new title sponsor — if it did not benefit his foundation.

That's not to suggest he is coming back too early. Woods said he has been in constant contact with doctors and trainers as he slowly expanded his swing from chipping and putting to irons to wedges, all the way through the bag until he started swinging the driver a few weeks ago. He tried to add 10 yards of distance every couple of days, taking a break and getting treatment on days it didn't feel quite right.

When he started putting, he would fill the holes on his practice green with sand to keep from bending over to pluck the ball out of the cup. When he felt strong enough to play, he said he would ride while standing on the back of the cart to avoid too much sitting.

Woods always has said he doesn't play if he doesn't think he can win. That's still the objective, sprinkled with some reality.

It will have been 109 days without PGA Tour competition when he tees it up Thursday morning with Jordan Spieth and Jason Day.

"Expectations don't change," Woods said. "That's the ultimate goal. It's just that it's going to be a little bit harder this time. 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."

The British Open is July 17-20 at Royal Liverpool, where Woods won in 2006 after missing the cut in a major for the first time at the U.S. Open. It also was his first major since his father died. Woods collected his 14th major two years later while playing on a shattered left leg at Torrey Pines.

He hasn't won another since then, leaving him four short of the standard set by Jack Nicklaus.

He can't win if he doesn't play, so this would be an important first step.

"I think there's always a fascination in terms of watching Tiger play golf and the run that he's been on throughout his career and what he still has to achieve in terms of his goals," Justin Rose said. "I think golf will get really exciting if he starts winning a couple more majors and the race to 18 becomes incredibly on again. I think that's incredibly exciting for the game of golf and will draw a lot more interest in the game once again."

There's already more interest. Organizers said ticket sales were double what they normally are on a Friday before the tournament, the day Woods announced his return.

This is the second time in four years that Woods has missed a three-month portion of the season because of injuries. He played only nine holes from April to August in 2011 while letting his leg injuries fully heal.

The difference this time was his lifestyle. Woods said he couldn't function in the weeks leading to his microdiscectomy surgery at the end of March.

"Anyone that has had any kind of nerve impingement, it's not a joke," he said. "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. I was able to do things, and do things that I normally took for granted."

Woods jokingly said he broke 50 when he played at home, just like he did when he was 3. "My prime is coming up," he said.

He has looked like an old 38 in recent years because of injuries and surgeries, though he is learning how to gauge his training. He recalled his younger days when he would run 30 miles a week, even if he was hurt, unaware the damage he was doing to his body.

"I have to now pick my spots when I can and can't push," he said. "Before, when you're young, I just pushed it all the time. But now I've got to listen to my body, listen to my therapist and then get treatment. When I was younger, I didn't need it."

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