Golf: Returning Tiger solid in 'needed' pro-am round

Tiger Woods hits a shot on the practice ground during the pro-am prior to the start of the Hero World Challenge at the Isleworth Golf & Country Club on Dec 3, 2014 in Windermere, Florida. -- PHOTO: AFP
Tiger Woods hits a shot on the practice ground during the pro-am prior to the start of the Hero World Challenge at the Isleworth Golf & Country Club on Dec 3, 2014 in Windermere, Florida. -- PHOTO: AFP

ORLANDO (AFP) - Tiger Woods walked 18 holes for the first time since the PGA Championship, swinging well in a Wednesday pro-am event ahead of his competitive return at the Hero World Challenge.

Woods, making his return this week after a four-month back injury layoff, made three birdies with a lone bogey, missing four fairways and two greens at Isleworth in the first hint of the form golf fans can expect from him in 2015.

"I'm starting to get my power back, starting to get my speed back," Woods said. "That has been nice."

The 14-time major champion, chasing the career record of 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, said he needed the workout more than usual because he had not walked an entire layout since last August, when he missed the cut at the PGA Championship.

"It felt good to be out there," Woods said. "I felt like I really needed today. It was a nice little indicator."

Woods, who turns 39 later this month, will tee off alongside Australian Jason Day, who is also returning from a back injury at the 18-player event.

The US$3.5 million (S$4.5 million) unofficial tournament that starts on Thursday benefits Woods' charity foundation.

Former world No. 1 Woods, who stands 24th in this week's rankings, looked in solid shape in his tuneup round, swinging well without the obvious back pain that had hindered his efforts in much of his injury-trimmed 2014 campaign.

"I built up my body, made a few adjustments on my swing and hit some good shots," Woods said.

He was joined by new swing consultant Chris Como, hired by Woods last month after a split with swing coach Sean Foley in August.

PGA veteran Steve Stricker said he likes what he has seen so far from Woods.

"He's one of the best ever and coming back with a lot of anticipation," Stricker said.

"It looks like he's swinging at it pretty good. It looks similar to the early 2000s to me."

That's the time frame in which Woods won four majors in a row and one that still influences his game.

Woods said he has looked back at his past styles to revamp his swing without the nagging back and knee injuries that have slowed him in recent seasons.

"It looked a lot freer," Stricker said. "Didn't look like he was getting in his way. It looked like it was on a better path. I'm sure he's going to have some issues going forward. It will be fun to watch it play out and see how he handles it going forward."

DON'T WRITE OFF TIGER YET

Woods has lost the aura of invincibility he once owned but remains a respected foe when healthy and comfortable with his swing as he was Wednesday.

"As far as players writing him off, I don't think so," Stricker said. "We all know what amazing things he has done over the course of 20 years. We know it's in there. If he starts swinging it better and starts feeling good about what he's doing again, it won't take long for him to be at the top of the game again."

Defending Challenge champion Zach Johnson has seen only a handful of shots from Woods but is happy to have him back in the field.

"It looked great to me," Johnson said. "I'm glad he's playing."

Johnson defeated Woods in a playoff last year, the last time Woods has cracked the top 10 in a tournament.

"That's strange," Johnson said. "You're talking about the best player I've ever witnessed. It's really, really strange. I'd be interested to see what he does this week."

Jordan Spieth, coming off a victory last week at the Australian Open, sees Woods closing the major gap on Nicklaus once he's fully fit.

"If he's 100 per cent healthy, I don't have any doubt he will get back to winning major championships," Spieth said.

"I look forward to be the one trying to stop him."