Woods claims to be pain free after undergoing his fourth back surgery in April, and his peers have reported a spring in his step and a rehabilitated swing that is out-driving world No.1 Dustin Johnson ahead of the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. Follow @cnnsportThe 41-year-old Woods trod the same path last year, making a much-anticipated return from a 15-month injury layoff at the elite-field event in Albany before breaking down again two tournaments later in Dubai in February.But Woods — who joked his kids and some of today's pros only know him as a YouTube star — says this time around is "light and day." "This is very different," he told a news conference in Albany Tuesday. "Last year I was struggling a little bit with the pain, I look like I was playing in slo-mo … I didn't realise how bad my back had become." Woods added: "This surgery was about quality of life … I'm loving life now." US Ryder Cup star Patrick Reed, who played nine holes with the former world No.1 Monday, said Woods "wasn't fearful" of his surgically repaired back and "wasn't guarding anything.""He had pep in his step. He was in high spirits," Reed told USA Today. "I was shocked how fluid his swing was and how far the ball was going. He had some speed behind it. He's always been a little longer than me, but some of those drives today, he got it out there."READ: Golf great's mind is 'blown' by modern game's failingsSince doctors gave him permission to start chipping again in August, Woods has been posting tantalizing glimpses of his recovering golf swing on social media. He has only been striking full shots for a month but fellow PGA star Rickie Fowler said Woods was hitting it "way by" him in recent practice rounds at home in Florida. Last week former world No.1 Jason Day, a close friend of Woods, said he spoke to him on the phone from Australia and heard it was "the best he's ever felt in three years."On Friday, Woods played 18 holes with President Trump, top-ranked Johnson and long-time PGA Tour pro Brad Faxon.In a column for GolfWeek, Faxon wrote that Woods out-drove the big-hitting Johnson "half the time." Woods played 18 holes at Albany Sunday, followed by more video clips of him swinging freely. Johnson confirmed Faxon's assessment Tuesday, telling the Golf Channel that Woods was "hitting it hard, no pain, looked like he was swinging it really well."READ: Golf's biggest hitter who is long on personalityREAD: What it's like playing golf with Donald Trump
Woods said he had experienced "dark times" over the past few years since his first back surgery in 2014 and told CNN's Living Golf ahead of the Dubai event he feared he might never play the game again. The nerve pain in his back extended down his leg and into his foot."I didn't have much of a life there for about two years," he told the Golf Channel Tuesday. "I couldn't get out of bed, I couldn't go out for dinner because I couldn't sit, I couldn't drive a car. It was a tough couple of years, now I'm on the good side."I'm just trying to get used to my new body, this is new. But I'll trade that any day for having a life back."
At last year's Hero World Challenge Woods finished 15th of 18, but he hit the most birdies of anyone in the field to fuel speculation of a return to his former heights.However, the anticipation fizzled out with a missed cut on his PGA Tour return in California in January and a faltering first-round of 77 in Dubai before back spasms forced him under the knife for the fourth time in April.Woods appeared again on a golf course as a vice-captain at the Presidents Cup in September, but during his rehabilitation he also struggled with personal issues. In May, he was arrested for driving under the influence after being found asleep behind the wheel of his stationary Mercedes-Benz late at night on a Florida road.He was found to have five different drugs for pain, anxiety and sleeping medications in his system. He later released a statement saying he did not realize the mix of medications "had affected me so strongly" and underwent rehab to manage his medications. "I've come out the other side and I feel fantastic," he said Tuesday. In August Woods entered a first-offender program and pleaded guilty to reckless driving on October 28. He will avoid jail unless he commits major violations of his probation.
Woods won the last of his 79 PGA Tour events in 2013 and the last of his 14 majors in 2008 and has played just seven competitive rounds since September 2015.Both Faxon and Reed were impressed by his "sharp" short-game, but Woods was quick to temper expectations given his lack of competitive action. "I haven't really competed in almost two years, really. I haven't really done much," the world No. 1,199 added. "I'm looking forward to competing again and trying to find the rhythm and feel of tournament golf. Just hitting shots. I haven't really had a scorecard in my hand in a while. That's going to be different."Woods may be able to defy injury but he will also be 42 on December 30, in a sport where many of the top players are in their 20s and were not on the circuit when Woods was at the height of his powers — hence the YouTube reference. Visit CNN.com/golf for more news, features and videosWoods refused to map out a schedule beyond this week, but an injury-free four days — his doctors have said there is no reason his back should fail again — should augur a tentative return to the PGA Tour."Give me time, let me play this event and see what I can and I can't do," said Woods, who will partner 24-year-old world No. 3 Justin Thomas in the first round Thursday.