TIGER Woods turned up on the eve of the 96th US PGA Championship and stopped halfway through a practice round to insist he could overcome his preparations being severely disrupted to win the season’s final major.
The 38-year-old’s participation at Valhalla had been in serious doubt after he withdrew during the last round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron on Sunday through severe back pain.
However, after receiving permission for a late registration, Woods arrived at the Louisville course just after noon and headed straight to the driving range.
Watched by a massive crowd, the 14-times major winner then went out for a practice round in the company of Steve Stricker, fresh from his appointment as a Ryder Cup vice-captain, as well as Davis Love III and Harris English.
Stopping to speak to the media after playing the front nine - he only did some chipping on the back nine - Woods insisted he was pain free and feels confident that he isn’t taking an unnecessary risk by playing this week.
The American, who underwent surgery for a trapped nerve in his back earlier in the year, revealed the problem at the weekend had been caused by the sacrum bone in his back being dislodged as he played his second shot on the second hole. After hitting it, Woods had to jump back into a fairway bunker.
“My physio put it back in and the spasms went away. I started getting some range of motion and we’ve just been treating it,” he said. “My physio is here and if it does go out, he’ll be able to fix it. I still need to get stronger and it’s just going to take more time.”
Asked if he’d feared the worst on Sunday, he added: “It was a different pain from what I was experiencing so it I knew it was not the site of the surgery. This is something totally different.
“When I landed, it jarred the sacrum - made it come out. I haven’t been able to do my agility stuff (since his surgery) because I’m still building back up, still playing.
“I can’t do both at the same time so when the season is over I’ll be getting back to my agility work to get my explosiveness and my power back where I used to be.”
Woods won the US PGA the last time it was staged here in 2000. This is only his fourth event since making his comeback after an 18-week lay-off but, asked if he could win this week, he replied: “Yes”.
Woods is out with Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington at 8.35am local time in the first round and his mere presence in Kentucky was welcomed by US Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson.
“I am encouraged, yes,” admitted the five-times Open champion. “He has said to me that he really wants to make the team. In conversations with Tiger, he’s straight up with me.
“I talked to Tiger a couple of weeks ago by phone and I texted him after he got hurt on Sunday to wish him well and say that I hope he gets it figured out. He texted me back and said, ‘that’s what we are trying to do’.”
Watson has insisted he’d hand Woods, who missed the season’s first two majors as he recovered from his back
surgery before finishing well down the field in The Open at Hoylake last month, one of his three wild cards for Gleneagles if he was both “playing well and healthy”.
Pointed out to him that neither seemed to be the case at the moment, the 64-year-old admitted: “He’s not in great health right now and he hasn’t played very well (in the three events he’s played since returning), so the question is, will I pick him?
“Well, I can’t tell until things happen in the next three or four weeks. It’s speculation what’s going to happen with Tiger.”
As revealed on scotsman.com, Watson also now has a fresh injury worry over Jason Dufner, who admitted on the eve of his title defence that he badly needs time off to fully recover from a neck problem.
“I had an epidural last Monday and, though they like you to rest for seven to ten days after, I haven’t been able to do that,” said the American, who is sitting eighth in the standings that will give Watson his nine automatic picks on Sunday night.
“I’m probably not going to be healthy until I can take six to eight weeks off, but the Ryder Cup is an important thing for me to try and be part of and if I were to make the team this week, I think I could be healthy by the time it rolls around.”
Stricker’s appointment - he joins Andy North and Raymond Floyd in Watson’s backroom team - was welcomed by Woods.
“I think it’s fantastic because Strick is not only a good guy, he’s also one of our peers,” said the former world No 1. “You have Tom, Raymond and Andy who don’t play out here anymore and don’t really know the guys.
“I think it’s important to have someone who is out here on a regular basis, who knows the guys, knows the personalities, knows their games inside out. I think his appointment is well deserved and a pretty smart move as well.”
Meanwhile, it has been announced that the 2016 US PGA Championship - at Baltusrol - will be held just a fortnight after The Open at Troon to accommodate the Olympics in Brazil.