US golfer Tiger Woods smiles while speaking to the press at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland on June 24, 2014US golfer Tiger Woods smiles while speaking to the press at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland on June 24, 2014 (AFP Photo/Mladen Antonov)
Bethesda (United States) (AFP) - Tiger Woods returns to competition Thursday saying he is pain free and healthy for the first time in two years and eager to add to his 14 major titles.
The 38-year-old American, sidelined for three months following back surgery to ease a pinched nerve, begins his comeback at the $6.5 million US PGA National at Congressional Country Club.
"I'm actually probably ahead of schedule, where everyone thought I would be at," Woods said. "It has been a very, very long time, probably a good two years since I've felt this way."
Woods admitted Tuesday that he probably would not have returned this week if it were not an event that benefits his charity foundation, his original goal having been to return in three weeks at the British Open at Royal Liverpool.
"We all thought the British Open would be my first event back, but I healed fast," said Woods, who credited his physical therapists and attention to nutrition with speeding his recovery.
Woods, who was toppled from atop the world rankings last month and is rated fifth this week, says that despite the nagging knee, leg and back injuries that have bothered him in recent years, he sees only minimal risk of reinjuring himself by returning sooner than first planned.
"I'm going to get stronger as time goes on," Woods said. "The risk is minimal, and just like it is with every round we play, we can hit behind a tree root and damage something... I'm no different in that regard."
Woods last lifted a major trophy at the 2008 US Open. He confirmed that he plans to resume his quest to pass the all-time record of 18 major titles won by Jack Nicklaus in the British Open next month at Royal Liverpool, where he won the Claret Jug in 2006.
This week, Woods is aiming at winning his first title in 13 months and 80th career PGA crown.
"Expectations don't change. That's the ultimate goal," Woods said. "It's just that it's going to be a little bit harder this time. I just haven't had the amount of prep and reps (preparation and repetitions) that I would like, but I'm good enough to play and I'm going to give it a go."
Woods will tee off at the 10th hole at 8:12 a.m. (12:12 GMT) Thursday alongside Australian Jason Day and young US star Jordan Spieth, both still seeking a first major triumph after runner-up finishes at the Masters.
It will be the first competitive round for Woods since he fired a 78, the worst final-round score of his pro career, on June 9 at Doral, where he struggled to bend over to pick the ball out of the cup.
"It has been an interesting road," Woods said. "This has been quite a tedious little process but one where I got to a point where I can play competitive golf again and it's pretty exciting."
Woods said he painstakingly followed exercise protocols and slowly rebuilt his game, progressively hitting 10 yards further when his condition allowed.
"All the strengthening exercises I've done throughout the years have paid off and have allowed me to get back quicker and to get back to this point," Woods said.
"When you get treatment all the time, it's amazing what you can do."
- 'My prime is coming up' -
Woods was able to swing fully with a driver about two weeks ago and began to play practice rounds.
"I wanted to knock off a little bit of rust on the range before I actually went out there and tried not to embarrass myself and I was able to do that, got some holes in, started feeling comfortable," Woods said.
"I broke 50 for nine, first time, just like I was when I was three. So I'm sneaking up on it. My prime's coming up."
Woods said he has not fully regained the explosiveness in his shotmaking that he prizes.
"It still hasn't happened, not to the level that I'm used to being that explosive," Woods said. "That's going to come in time."
Woods visited the White House on Tuesday to again meet US President Barack Obama at a ceremony to honor the 2013 US Presidents Cup team's triumph, in which Woods took the clinching point.
"I've been there several times. It's always an interesting experience," Woods said, recalling one visit when Obama kept some important-looking people waiting so he could talk about sports with Woods.
"I felt awful that I'm holding up a Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting because he wanted to talk sports," Woods said.