By Tom Edrington

Akron, OH

It's dawn at Firestone

There's the early morning hum of maintenance equipment, preparing the Firestone Country Club for Thursday's start of the WGC Bridgestone event.

He typically shows up just before first light, first one on the practice tee then the first to go nine holes, quickly.

It's the Tiger Woods dawn patrol. It's quieter, no crowds, no frenzy, no autograph hounds, exactly the way Woods prefers it.

There's an unfamiliar figure on the bag. He's no tour caddie, his pasty-white legs testament to that fact. Steve Williams is gone and Woods' long-time friend Byron Bell is described best by his friend and boss this week as an "interim caddie."

Woods gets around nine holes quickly. No need to dwell on the layout. He's won here a record seven times in 11 appearances. Lots of familiarity.

There's the obligatory press conference and Woods will have to answer many of the same questions over and over.

"Yeah, I'm ready to go," Woods announces. "Doctors gave me clearance to go so here I am. Started practicing a couple of weeks ago, which was nice."

Woods poo-poos the notion that he is rusty from the layoff: "The shots felt very crisp, very clean. I was very pleased," is how he assessed his early morning work.

His new teacher, Sean Foley walked with him, as he often does, but hasn't had to in more than 60 days. Woods started practicing again without Foley, but he's here this week.

Woods is pleased to find out that he'll be paired with Open champion Darren Clarke the first two rounds of this limited field event. There is no cut. Woods sent Clarke some detailed advice before the final round of the Open, but in typical Woods, tight-lipped fashion, refused to elaborate. "Well, that's between Darren and I," he said curtly.

Then there is the famous knee, a subject Woods could not avoid. "The great thing is, I don't feel a thing. It feels solid, it feels stable, no pain," he advised.

He couldn't duck the Steve Williams firing either. "Well, I thought it was time for a change," is how Woods explained the decision to fire his long-time caddie.

He slogged his way through the questions as he always does.

In the end, he had a simple declaration:

"I'm excited. Excited to compete to play and hopefully win the golf tournament," said Woods, who has now fallen to 28th in the world rankings.

He emphasized how good he feels, physical.

"Best I've felt in years," Woods said.

That was "years" the same amount of time he's gone without winning.


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Tiger Woods Dawn Patrol Back In Action