Tiger Woods says he’s pain free after his 12 week break. Picture Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ieAll has changed in the world of Tiger Woods since he limped off the golf course after just nine holes of the Player Championship at Sawgrass 12 weeks ago. All and nothing.

The former world No 1 has seen Rory McIlroy emerge as a rival to his throne with that eight-shot US Open victory, watched good pal Darren Clarke win the Open at the age of 42 and slipped to 28th in the world for his poorest ranking for 14 years.

He’s left management giants IMG with his agent Mark Steinberg in tow and moved to Excel Sports Management. He’s sacked Steve Williams, his caddie of 12 years and arrived in Akron for this week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational with boyhood pal Bryon Bell on the bag as a temporary replacement.

Happy Tiger. Picture Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ieYet despite all this it was the same old Tiger who played nine holes at Firestone Country Club yesterday morning, blasted balls on the range and then sat down for media conference where he insisted he’s “good to go” after this recent knee and Achilles tendon injury problems and ready to win for the first time since the 2009 Australian Masters.

We’ve heard Woods’ unbridled enthusiasm before and come away disappointed so there is a real fascination as to whether or not he can back up his words with good golf this week.

He was clearly delighted to learn that he’s been “drawn” with his old pal Clarke for the first two rounds at a course where he has won seven times.

“Darren’s been through a lot in his life, losing Heather,” said Woods, who sent Clarke several text messages of advice during the Open. “So for him to find happiness with his two boys and to watch him win the Open was pretty cool.”

Clarke and Woods were being written off as yesterday’s men just three months ago but golf is a fickle mistress and they are now in the marquee group for one of the richest events in the game.

All eyes will be on Woods’ efforts to prove that the overriding feeling of excitement that he brings to this week’s limited field extravaganza is more than just another mirage.

“I’m excited, excited to compete, to play, and hopefully win the golf tournament,” he said, flashing his million dollar smile.

Asked if he could remember how many years it’s been since he was this excited, he said: ” Years.”

How many?

“Years, plural. Just plural.”

Of course, we’ve seen this Tiger before and come away disappointed by the results. When he returned from eight-month, injury-induced layoff at the 2009 Accenture Match Play in Tucson in 2009, he sounded bulletproof in the media room and then lost to Tim Clark in the second round.

Perhaps we will see the Tiger who was impressive on his comeback from the sex scandal that rocked his life at the end of that year, returning at the Masters where he tied for fourth.

He explained yesterday that he began hitting his driver three weeks ago but resisted the temptation to return to action in last week’s Greenbrier Classic.

“I’m just focused on trying to win a golf tournament,” he said in a 25-minutes press conference. “That’s it.”

Last year, Woods finish on 18 over par at Firestone, some 30 shots behind winner Hunter Mahan. It’s safe to say that was rock bottom as far as his playing crisis goes.

He’s now coached Sean Foley but suffered further injury problems that have raised doubts about his ability to get back to the top of the game and add to his 14 major wins.

Having finished fourth at the Masters, he announced two weeks later that he had suffered “minor” injuries to his left knee and Achilles tendon while hitting a shot during the third round at Augusta.

He skipped the Wells Fargo Invitational but awhen he returned for the Players Championship, he shot 42 for nine holes and limped out of the game until this week.

Admitting he set back his recovery by coming back too soon at Sawgrass, he said: “Absolutely. I was back to where I was good to go and put myself back again.”

With that lesson learned, he resisted the temptation to come back at last week’s Greenbrier Classic but played 18th holes at Atlanta Athletic Club on Monday, the venue for next week’s US PGA, before pitching up in Akron with his confidence sky high.

“I was pretty close to being ready to and go and it’s like, ‘hey, just give yourself some more days of hitting a lot of golf balls and get your body attuned to that and conditioned to that,’” he said. “So I listened, I listened to the docs and took another week and I’m thankful that I did because I feel great now.”

Insisting he’s pain free, he said: “I don’t feel a thing. It feels solid, it feels stable, no pain. That’s one of the reasons why I took as long as I did to come back is that I want to get to this point where I can go ahead and start playing golf again like this.

“It’s been a very long time, and it feels good to go out there today and hit balls like this, go practice and feel nothing and walk around and pretty much do anything I want on the golf course.”