At Firestone, Woods finally playing without pain

Tiger Woods reads a putt during Round 2 of the Bridgestone Invitational.

Tiger Woods reads a putt during Round 2 of the Bridgestone Invitational.

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Akron, Ohio – The little picture is that Tiger Woods still had some distance-control problems and didn’t putt well in a second-round 71 that put him in the middle of the pack, far behind the WGC Bridgestone Invitational leaders.

The big picture is Woods is playing pain-free golf again, shaky 2-foot putts aside.

“You have no idea,” said Woods, smiling widely, when asked how relieved he is competing without leg pain. At the midway point of the tournament, he stands at 1-under-par 139 at Firestone South.

As Woods was piecing together an uneven second round that included four birdies, three bogeys and a double bogey, his longtime manager, Mark Steinberg, weighed in on Woods’ return to golf after 12 weeks of recovering from left-leg injuries.

“The story yesterday wasn’t the 68,” Steinberg said from the course. “It was playing pain-free. He was relieved last night.”

Woods will go as far as his health and his putting take him. At the moment, his physical condition is finally fine again, to the point that he is hitting the ball farther than he has been and, thus, having a hard time figuring out how far iron shots will travel.

In other words, he’s rusty and a little off.

“I’m still not feeling my distance control,” he said after hitting eight of 14 fairways and 11 greens in regulation. “I’m not used to having adrenaline in my system, it’s hot and the ball is flying and I’m swinging better. So I’ve got to get used to the new numbers (carry distances for each club).”

So it may take some time before he’s dialed in. That said, Woods drove the ball well, leading him to trot out one of his favorite two-word phrases.

“Very close,” he said, adding, “I’m so close to putting a ball on a string.”

Then there’s his putting. He putted Friday like a man who has played but one full tournament since March. He doesn’t putt nearly as well as he did, say, 10 years ago or even as recent as 2009. It will be interesting to see if he, on the cusp of 36, can reclaim the touch of his peak years, when he seemingly made every important putt, like Jack Nicklaus long before him.

On Friday, Woods did make a 21-foot birdie putt (at No. 7) and three others in the range of 5-9 feet. But he also missed two birdie chances inside 10 feet. Plus, he failed to convert par putts of 2, 5 and 9 feet and a 5-footer for bogey.

“I just didn’t putt well,” he said.

He missed a 2-footer at 14, where his ball powered off the right lip, much to his disbelief. Like many people who play golf, he didn’t spend a lot of time lining up the little one.

Later, he almost missed one from 2 feet, 5 inches at the eighth. His ball hit the right lip and circled around before falling, again leaving him with an incredulous look.

The problem, he said, was the same each time, as with his putting in general.

“The path wasn’t very good going back,” Woods said. “It was underneath the plane ... just not very good. The putter blade went in and under going back (on the 2-footer) and I blocked it. Same thing at 8.

“I’ve got to go work on that.”

One thing Woods clearly doesn’t feel he needs to work on is his expectation. Though he is coming off another long layoff, he said his goal is the same as it always has been: Go to a tournament with the intention of winning.

When one reporter suggested that perhaps Woods should dial back his lofty expectations as he eases back into competition, the former longtime world No. 1 was having none of it.

“Why show up at a tournament if you’re not there to win?” he said. “There’s no reason to come.”

When the reporter said other guys coming back from injury might ease back into action, Woods was quick to respond.

“I’m not other guys,” he said.

He wasn’t smiling.

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