Firestone uncertainty looms large for rusty Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods has generally been a winning bet at Firestone Country Club but this week at the tree-lined...

Tiger Woods looks on from the fifth hole during the first round of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass on May 12, 2011. Picture: AFP

Tiger Woods has generally been a winning bet at Firestone Country Club but this week at the tree-lined venue he will face as much uncertainty as the recent <country-region w:st="on"><place w:st="on">U.S.</country-region> debt ceiling crisis.

The former world number one will end a 12-week layoff when he tees off in Thursday's opening round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in pursuit of his first tournament victory since the 2009 Australian Masters.

A seven-times winner of the elite World Golf Championships (WGC) event at Firestone, Woods has not played competitive golf since he pulled out of the Players Championship in May after completing just nine holes.

The 35-year-old American has missed the last two majors because of leg injuries and even he cannot be certain how he will fare on his PGA Tour return after only recently getting back to hitting practice balls.

However Woods was in typically gung-ho mood when he spoke to reporters at Firestone on Tuesday after playing nine holes in practice.

"I'm ready to go," the 14-times major champion said, adding that he had not felt as fit in years. "Doctors gave me the clearance to go, so here I am."

As for his goals at Firestone? "Same as always," he said. "Hasn't changed, expectation level. I'm just focussed on trying to win a golf tournament."

Asked what he was most certain about with regard to his likely form this week, Woods replied: "I'm excited, excited to compete, to play and hopefully win the golf tournament.

"It's Tuesday. I still haven't been in a competitive environment yet, so that's a totally different atmosphere. But the shots (in practice) felt very crisp, very clean."

Woods hurt his left knee ligaments and Achilles tendon during the Masters in April and has not competed since he withdrew from the Players Championship at Sawgrass on May 12.

He has not won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open nor any tournament worldwide since 2009, and was forced to pull out of the June 16-19 U.S. Open at Congressional and the July 14-17 British Open at Royal St. George's.

Woods only began hitting his driver a few weeks ago but he was especially delighted about his overall health.

'NO PAIN'

"The great thing is 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 practise and feel nothing and walk around and pretty much do anything I want on the golf course."

While Woods has lost the near-invincible aura he once enjoyed since his alarming fall from grace on and off the course at the end of 2009, he has always thrived at Firestone.

In 11 appearances at the venue, he has triumphed seven times and his tie for 78th here last year was the only occasion when he has finished outside the top four at the event.

British Open champion Darren Clarke, tournament champion in 2003 and a long-time friend of Woods, has been paired with the American for the first two rounds.

Though Clarke was unsure of what to expect from Woods out on the course this week, the Northern Irishman said he would not be surprised to see the former world number one flourish.

"Knowing Tiger like I do, I don't think he would come back to play unless he was ready ... both physically and mentally, and be ready for the challenge again," said Clarke.

"He could be a hard man to beat this week because of his record around this golf course. He loves it so much and has played so well here before. I wouldn't be surprised to see him have a really, really good week."

Clarke, who won his first major title at the age of 42 by three shots at Royal St. George's last month, has been showered in praise by his peers since he arrived at Firestone.

"There's been lots of 'well dones' and handshakes and stuff like that, but they probably still think I'm a fat so-and-so who likes to have a good time," he said with a broad grin.

American Hunter Mahan is the defending champion this week, having won the biggest title of his career here by two shots last year.