Rude: All has changed for Tiger except his goal

Tiger Woods talks to the media during a press conference after a practice round for the 2011 World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club.

Tiger Woods talks to the media during a press conference after a practice round for the 2011 World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club.

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AKRON, Ohio - Back in competition for the first time in 12 weeks after rehabilitating left-leg injuries, a seemingly relaxed Tiger Woods painted a picture of optimism as he answered questions for about 25 minutes Tuesday morning here at Firestone Country Club. The session served as instant gratification for the curious. The real answers, though, will come in the next two weeks and next two years and next two dozen major championships.

For the record, and for those thirsting for a typically filtered update from someone not known for his candor, Woods said he is pleased with his game and is hitting “crisp and clean” shots just 2-3 weeks into the resumption of full-bore practice. He said he is “excited” to compete again and, in terms of health, feels better than he has in years.

“Years, plural,” he said more than once.

The leg feels strong, he’s itching to get back in the mix and his goals haven’t changed. If you didn’t know any better, you’d have thought not much has happened since Thanksgiving 2009.

“I’m here to win a golf tournament,” he said, referring to the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, a gathering he has won a record seven times at one of his pet playgrounds, Firestone South.

The reality, of course, is much has changed over the past 20 months, like, perhaps, everything – starting with his life and game and the competition around him. More on that in a moment, but first a word on the latest change, that of the caddie.

Woods fired Steve Williams, his trusty and gruff bag man of a dozen years, in person Aug. 3 and announced it a couple of weeks later via website. On one hand, it was a curious split, given their success and chemistry. On the other, it’s reflective of the fact Woods hardly is known as a warm-fuzzy relationship guy.

It has been reported here that the tipping point came after Williams caddied for Adam Scott during Woods’ hiatus. Williams got initial permission to work for Scott at the U.S. Open, but then the Woods camp is said to have had a change of heart. Apparently Williams pushed Woods too far when teaming with Scott again, this time without consent, at the AT&T National, site of the dismissal.

Williams has told others he was told then he was “disloyal.” Woods, of course, is not one who spews details. He tends to speak in generalities, not specifics. He’s not one to readily come forth with reasons. So it was Tuesday.

“I thought it was time for change,” he said. “I felt Stevie and I have had just an amazing run. Steve is a hell of a caddie, there’s no denying that. . . . But I just felt it was time to change things up a little bit. I felt very comfortable with the move.”

Ah, yes, comfort. It is the reason longtime pal Bryon Bell, who heads Woods’ quiet design division, is on the bag temporarily until the boss finds a permanent replacement. Temporary means at least this week and next at the PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club, where Woods visited Monday and discovered the course “way longer” than at the 2001 PGA.

Woods and Williams were good for each other while collecting 13 major championships and scores of other trophies together. Woods had a loyal employee who was good under pressure and had his back in terms of keeping people away from him at the workplace. Williams, in turn, became rich and famous.

As for Bell, he is not a trained looper but worked for Woods several times years ago, including victories in the U.S. Amateur, Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines and Southern California Amateur. He’s back in the interim role for reasons of trust, safety and comfort at a time Woods needs such.

“Bryon and I are very comfortable out there on the golf course,” Woods said.

It’s anyone’s guess who will caddie for him next. Asked for the traits he desires, Woods mentioned someone who can handle and has experienced pressure down the stretch. That would seem to suggest a veteran who has won big tournaments with strong-willed players. Someone such as the low-key Tony Navarro, who like Williams used to work for Greg Norman, makes obvious sense.

“It would be a great fit,” said someone who has ties to both Woods and Navarro.

Scott and Navarro, 51, split in May after seven years and 12 worldwide victories together. They joined up in 2004 after Navarro spent 13 years with Norman.

What is certain is the Woods camp has heard from many interested parties, in and out of the Tour, serious and not.

“There’s been a few,” Woods said. “People who are not caddies out here, a ton. We’ve gotten a lot of interesting ones. Yes, a lot of interesting ones.”

The dominant Woods of yesteryear could have won tournaments with his mother carrying a Sunday bag. But now he is 35 and has gone through the emotional, mental and physical ringer. The only constant about him during the past 20 months has been change, all triggered by the scandal of multiple infidelIities that led to a rehabilitation center, Tour sabbatical, a costly divorce and a winless stretch.

Developments have led to myriad things new: life, image, game, coach, swing, physical condition, falling endorsement income, management company and now caddie.

How he responds to all that will be interesting to watch. Remarkably, he hasn’t won on Tour since September 2009. Yet the last time he played a full tournament, he almost won the Masters. Had he two-putted the 12th, hit a 7-iron on the green at 13 and made a 5-footer at 15, he probably would have.

It was the first time since he enlisted Sean Foley as his new coach last summer that he seemed to play golf instead of swing. Putting and chipping held him back there. Woods and Foley admitted they neglected short-game work while focusing on the new swing.

My sense is Woods will go as far as his putting takes him. If he somehow starts putting as well as he used to, he’ll challenge Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. It remains to be seen how big of an if that is for nerves which will turn 36 in December.

He might be competitively rusty now, but he has had plenty of time to chip and putt in recent weeks. More important, apparently he’s healthy, the first step to any future success.

“It feels solid; it feels stable, no pain,” he said of a left leg that suffered a knee sprain and Achilles’ tendon strain. “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 said.

That qualifies as a good start to yet another re-start.

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