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Published: 6/3/2010

Woods is optimistic

DUBLIN, Ohio - His personal life has been in turmoil. He still is the No. 1 golfer in the world, but has played only nine competitive rounds in 2010. His coach fired him. His neck has been a pain in the, well, neck.

"The last six months have been pretty tough," Tiger Woods said yesterday. "I think that life is moving forward."

And it is moving forward the only way Tiger knows - club in hand, between the ropes, on a golf course.

He has been practicing full bore, even played 54 holes the other day. "I hit every shot forward," he said, laughing. "It was great."

There hasn't been a whole lot of "great" for Woods since winning the Australian Masters in mid-November of last year. He disappeared for nearly five months after details of his extracurricular sex life emerged. When he decided to make his return at the real Masters at Augusta National he likely packed too much preparation into too little time.

"I'd taken so much time off, was away from the game, and didn't do anything that physically resembled the game of golf, to then come back and try to hit the same amount of balls I was hitting right before the Aussie Masters, I just wasn't physically ready for it.

"The body started breaking down and I just kept playing through it. [And I was thinking] Oh, it will get better, it will get better. It never got better. It just kept getting worse."

The major problem was his neck and resulting headaches. Though Woods fought through it impressively at the Masters, shooting four sub-par rounds and finishing tied for fourth, he followed by shooting a 79 and missing the cut at Quail Hollow and then withdrew during the final round of the Players Championship.

That was on May 9, and Woods will compete for the first time since in today's first round of the Memorial Tournament. If yesterday's tune-up, the skins game at Muirfield Village, was any indication, he appears ready to defend his '09 championship and go after a fifth Memorial title. He started the back nine 3-3-3-3, which translates to birdie-eagle-par-birdie.

"My neck feels pretty good," said Woods, who said he went 10 days after the Players without touching a club, and then gradually got back into it. "It's still not where I want it to be, but the inflammation has calmed down and I've got range of motion again. It's a little bit sore after a good hard day of practice, but I can recover now for the next day. I'm good enough to play, definitely. Maybe this time I can get four rounds in and get ready for the [U.S.] Open."

But who is helping him play and prepare?

Shortly after the Players, swing coach Hank Haney basically divorced Woods and hinted that he didn't want to be a part of all the things going on in Tiger's life. It was amicable, but there was a bit of an edge to it.

"I totally understand," Woods said. "I mean, there's a lot going on, as we have all seen."

Woods added that he had "no plans" in regards to a new coach and, for now, is sort of self-diagnosing his game through the magic of video.

That being the case he might want to pop in the tape of the 2000 U.S. Open, an event that returns to Pebble Beach in two weeks. A decade ago, Woods won the Open at Pebble by 15 strokes, the most dominating performance in major championship history.

Was that his best week of golf ever?

Woods hesitated, and then said, "Well, the '97 Masters was actually pretty good, I think. The 2000 British Open wasn't bad either."

Well, is it at least safe to say it's in the top three?

"OK," he said with that famous, albeit absent of late, smile.

It really hasn't been that long since Woods played so well. It only seems that way. Like he said, it has been a rough six months.

Woods said it "would be nice to get four rounds in and be in contention and hopefully win this thing," and while anything might happen when Tiger sets foot on Muirfield Village grass, it figures his goals are not so short-term.

"Yeah, it's going to take a little time," he said. "It's great to hit it at home, but I need to bring it out here. Ultimately, once you bring it out here, you've got to bring it to a major championship. Once you do that, you've got to bring it to the major championship on a Sunday on the back nine."

For so long, Woods was better at that than anybody.

He recognizes there is a process to getting back there. And the next step begins today.

Contact Blade sports columnist

Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.



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