Woods: 'Neck feels pretty good'

DUBLIN, Ohio -- He stressed that the golf was played with a cart, wearing shorts and very fast. But it was 54 holes -- in one day -- and for a guy with a bad neck, Tiger Woods seemed pretty pleased with his progress.

Gone is the doom and gloom of his withdrawal from the Players Championship on May 9 with what Woods feared was a bulging disk in his neck.

In its place is cautious optimism as Woods returns to the PGA Tour at the Memorial Tournament, which begins Thursday. He is the defending champion.

"Actually, my neck feels pretty good," Woods said Wednesday at Muirfield Village Golf Club, where he participated in a nine-hole skins game that featured two groups of players, including tournament host and founder Jack Nicklaus. Woods won six of the available nine skins in his group and started by going birdie-eagle-par-birdie.

"Still not where I want it to be, but the inflammation has calmed down. I got range of motion again. It's a little bit sore after a good hard day of practice, but I can recover for the next day, which is good ... and get back at it, repeated days in a row, which is what I haven't been able to do consistently."

Woods feared the worst when he had to quit just seven holes into the final round of the Players Championship with a neck issue that had gotten progressively worse.

The world's No. 1-ranked golfer, who has played just nine competitive rounds this year, said the problems began during his haste to return for the Masters after a self-imposed exile from the game due to disclosures of marital infidelity.

"It wasn't one moment, it was cumulative," said Woods, who was diagnosed with inflammation of a facet joint in his neck. "Because I'd taken so much time off and was away from the game and didn't do anything that physically resembled the game of golf, then come back and try and hit the same amount of golf balls that I was hitting right before the Aussie Masters [his last tournament victory in November], I wasn't physically ready for it.

"And the body started breaking down then, and I just kept playing through it. 'Oh, it will get better. It will get better.' It just kept getting worse."

So much so that Woods had severe headaches and trouble turning his head, issues he did not disclose before announcing the injury at the Players.

Making matters worse was the fact that Woods badly missed the cut at the Quail Hollow Championship, shooting a second-round 79. And he was well out of contention heading into the final round of the Players.

Woods' diagnosis came on May 12 and he said he went "about a week and a half before I picked up a club and then gradually got into it. And then the past probably five, six days, I've been going at it pretty good."

Included in that was 54 holes of golf at his Isleworth home on Sunday, and a 90-minute practice session at Muirfield Village on Tuesday.

He has no swing coach with him following the departure of Hank Haney during the days following the Players Championship and Woods said he has "no plans" to replace Haney.

The circumstances are, obviously, quite different from past years, but Woods has never gone this far into a PGA Tour season without a victory. And the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach -- where he won by 15 shots 10 years ago -- looms in two weeks.

"Since I haven't been in this position before, it would be nice to get four rounds in and be in contention and hopefully win this thing. That's kind of where I'd like to be.

"I'd like to see where my game is at going into the Open, and I should get a full tournament in, which I haven't had since the Masters."

It is a far different scenario from a year ago, when Woods won the Memorial with a stirring final-round 65 that included him hitting all 14 fairways. It was his second victory of the year and made him a huge favorite heading into the U.S. Open, where he tied for sixth.

"He played the best tournament I've ever seen him play here last year, particularly from a driving standpoint," Nicklaus said. "[This year] a lot of it depends on his preparation. He felt he needed preparation and although he played pretty well at Augusta [tied for fourth at the Masters], he struggled from not having competed.

"I think this is a very big week for him."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com.