NASSAU, Bahamas -- After years of battling back problems that have limited him to just 19 worldwide starts in the past 3 ½ years, the biggest surprise for Tiger Woods as he attempts to return to competitive golf again this week is the lack of discomfort -- not only playing golf, but in daily activities.
"The fact that I don't have any pain in my lower back anymore compared to what I was living with for years. ... it's just remarkable,'' said Woods, who underwent a fourth back surgery in April, which essentially removed the disk that has been causing nerve pain.
"It could be the next step, I just didn't know [when the pain would occur],'' Woods said. "That's tough to live with. And it's been a struggle for years. To finally come out on the good side of it is exciting. I am stiffer. Of course, [his lower back is] fused. But I don't have the pain. Life is so much better.''
How much better his golf game is after years of struggle will begin to take shape this week at the Hero World Challenge, an 18-player tournament that benefits Woods' foundation.
Tiger Woods will play competitive golf this week for the first time in 9 months. Here he is moments ago on the putting green. The 18-player field begins play at the Hero World Challenge on Thursday at Albany, the Bahamas.
Reserved for players ranked among the top 50 in the world, Woods has a spot due to a provision that gives him an exemption as tournament host. Ranked No. 1 in the world for a record 683 weeks, Woods, 41, has slipped to 1,199 in the world due mostly to lack of play over the past several years.
This week's 72-hole event will be his first competition since he withdrew from the Dubai Desert Classic on Feb. 3 citing back spasms. That was just the third event of an aborted comeback that began a year ago at this tournament, where he led the field in birdies but finished 15th out of 17 players.
"I haven't really competed in almost two years, really,'' Woods said. "I haven't really done much. I'm looking forward to competing again and trying to find the rhythm and feel of tournament golf. Just hitting shots. I haven't really had a scorecard in my hand in a while. That's going to be different.''
Woods, who hasn't spoken publicly about his May arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence, is expected to take questions about the incident during a Tuesday tournament news conference.
Woods basically had Albany to himself on Sunday, when he played an 18-hole practice round riding along with his caddie, Joe LaCava. He played with the club's director of golf, Lemon Gorospe, and the two appeared to have a lively match going. Another one of those took place on Friday in Florida, where Woods played alongside President Trump, No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson and longtime tour player Brad Faxon, who provided a few details in a first-person account with Golfweek.
Faxon's biggest takeway: Woods' health.
"Tiger looked great to me,'' Faxon said. "He was happy, and more than anything, finally pain-free.'' Faxon also noted how well Woods hit the ball; a similar report emerged earlier from Rickie Fowler, who has played Woods at their home club in South Florida, The Medalist.
"He was not concerned about swinging hard and going at it with the driver,'' Faxon said. "The ball flight, the sound off the club, all of it was right there.''
Woods, who won the last of his 79 PGA Tour titles in 2013, has since had four back surgeries. The first on March 31, 2014, was a microdiscectomy meant to alleviate nerve pain. He had similar procedures in September and October 2015.
He took more than a year away from competitive golf before returning to the Hero in 2016, only to have the back issues plague him again. Woods then decided on the spinal fusion surgery, which took place on April 19 and came with a recovery time of six months without swinging a club.
At the Presidents Cup in September, Woods said he was only hitting 60-yard pitch shots. Soon after, he was given the go-ahead to take full swings, although he said they came with some trepidation.
"Absolutely. That's why I built it up slowly,'' he said. "My surgeon was right on point. Putt for a little bit. Then you chip for a little bit. Then you hit some short irons. He let me progress through the bag after a few weeks. I sent him videos. We talked about it and I talked about it with my physio [trainer]. We had a game plan.
"But it's all based on feel. Trust me, the first time I hit a driver, I probably hit it 150 yards. I just chipped it.
"I'm going to have to hit it a little bit harder than that. So I progressed over a few days hitting driver harder and harder and harder until it was comfortable hitting it full. That's what I did. My first wedges weren't full. My first 9-iron was going maybe 90 yards until I got my confidence and got up to full distance. It takes time. The last thing I want to do is have any setbacks.''