|Woods hits tee shot during a practice round for the World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational [GALLO/GETTY]
Tiger Woods was on the practice range just as the sun began to rise on Tuesday over Firestone, his first time on a PGA Tour golf course in nearly three months.
Even as the season heads toward a conclusion, Woods can't wait to get started.
"I'm excited to compete, to play," Woods said.
"And hopefully, to win the tournament.''
That part about Woods hasn't changed.
It's everything else in the world of golf he once ruled that is so much different. Woods showed up at the Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio at No. 28, his lowest world ranking since the start of his first full season on the PGA Tour.
He has a new caddie - at least temporarily - in Bryon Bell, a childhood friend who now heads up a design business that is not getting much work these days with a downturn in the industry.
He no longer is the dominant force in golf, having gone 20 months since his last win at the Australian Masters.
For Woods, however, the biggest change is how he feels about his health.
"The great thing is I don't feel a thing," Woods said.
"It feels solid. It feels stable. No pain... 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, who was No. 1 in the world at the Bridgestone Invitational a year ago, has not played since he walked off the course after nine holes May 12 at The Players Championship with recurring injuries to his left knee and Achilles' tendon.
He said he injured them during the third round of the Masters while hitting a shot from an awkward stance in the pine straw on the 17th hole. Woods said if he had sat out the rest of May, he would have been fine the rest of the year, a lesson he learned this time around.
Woods wasn't about to return until he was 100 percent healthy, and he is convinced of that now.
He said he started hitting balls a couple of weeks ago, without giving an exact date, and that he got the itch to start playing soon after. Woods said he thought about playing The Greenbrier Classic last week, but decided to wait a little more.
What gets him excited?
"Trying to beat these boys," Woods said.
In the three months since he was gone, Rory McIlroy shattered his U.S. Open scoring record to par, and good friend Darren Clarke finally won a major at the British Open at age 42. Steve Stricker has won twice to become the highest-ranked American.
| Woods's former caddy Steve Williams with Adam Scott at the AT&T National [GALLO/GETTY]
Woods still managed to make news while not playing when he fired his caddie, Steve Williams, after a 12-year partnership during which he won 13 majors. For all the talk about disloyalty - Williams caddied for Adam Scott
at the U.S. Open, then again at the AT&T National without seeking permission - Woods said only that it was "time for a change."
He did not bite when asked about Williams' comments to a New Zealand television station that he had wasted the last two years of his life.
"That's what he says and what he feels," Woods said.
In his place is Bell, who last caddied for Woods at the 2003 Disney Classic, and previously worked for Woods when he won the 1996 U.S. Amateur and the 1999 Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines.
Woods said Bell is only a fill-in - "Have you seen his legs?" he said - and there is no timetable for getting a permanent replacement. The only sense of urgency for Woods is his results.
Because he has missed so much golf - and didn't play all that great early in the year - he has plunged to No. 135 in the FedEx Cup standings. He needs to crack the top 125 after this World Golf Championship and the PGA Championship to qualify for the playoffs.
He could take care of that with a top 10 finish at Firestone, where only once in his career - last year - has he finished lower than fifth.
As for the rust? That's still to be determined.
He played nine holes on Tuesday, often hitting more than one shot when he wasn't pleased with where it was going. But it was only practice. Woods won't get a good sense of where his game is until the first round on Thursday.
"I'm just focused on trying to win a golf tournament," he said.