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Like LeBron, Tiger has much riding on return to Akron

By Marla Ridenour Akron Beacon Journal (MCT) • Updated Jul 30, 2014 at 10:44 PM

They share the same birthday, Dec. 30, and are the reigning superstars of their sports, so a question to Tiger Woods about LeBron James did not seem at all inappropriate.

Especially in the Homecoming King’s hometown.

Woods’ attempt to make a joke or diss James was swatted back without a blink, with Woods saying, “On who?” and the questioner immediately replying, “LeBron.”

But Woods’ answer may have been his most interesting as the defending champion of the $9 million World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational arrived at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio with much on the line this week.

Woods thinks he was in Switzerland when he found out James was leaving the Miami Heat to return to the Cavaliers.

“I was probably as surprised as anybody when all that went down,” Woods said Wednesday. “You could see the cards kind of falling into place, with the three of them all opting out at the same time and nobody was doing anything.

“As a player who plays an individual sport, it’s different. We don’t play half our season at home. For him to have grown up here and play here for his first seven years, I can see where that could be an attraction to come back. He already accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. He set out to win championships and he did. Four straight final appearances is awfully impressive. He won two, but people forget he went to all four.”

Woods said he admired the “energy level” it took from James to accomplish that, especially considering his participation on the U.S. Olympic team that gave him few breaks. But Woods also understands why the 50-year championship drought would be a lure for James.

“Cleveland hasn’t, unfortunately, won championships in a very long time and it would be pretty huge if he was able to do it,” Woods said.

So in a sense, Woods feels the pain of Northeast Ohioans.

He might as well be an adopted son, considering he’s won eight times at Firestone Country Club. Rarely has he come to the Bridgestone Invitational with as much on the line.

Woods is playing his third event since undergoing back surgery March 31. He missed the cut at the Quicken Loans National last month, then finished 69th at the British Open on July 20. He hasn’t qualified for the four-tournament FedExCup playoffs and needs to win or finish no worse than third here and at next week’s PGA Championship at Valhalla to get in.

He’s also trying to secure a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, with Tom Watson making three captain’s picks in September.

Woods said he hasn’t been in such a precarious position since 2011, when an Achilles injury kept him out of the FedExCup.

“Hopefully, this go-round I’ll be a little bit better,” he said.

The venues could help his chances. Woods won the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla in a three-hole playoff with Bob May. During his dominance at Firestone, he has tied the South Course record of 61 twice — in the second round last year, and in 2000. He’s been in the top 10 13 times in 15 appearances, although his finish at 78th in 2010 was next to last. That could have cost him a captain’s pick on the Ryder Cup team, but Corey Pavin still selected him.

Woods has come back from knee surgeries and injuries to both Achilles, but said the return from back surgery is totally different.

“Most people I talked to who have had the procedure have no idea how I’m even back here playing,” Woods said. “I still need to get much stronger and much more explosive than I am now. That’s just time.”

As for analysts’ observations that Woods has shortened his backswing, he said: “I can’t turn that far. We’ve been trying to shorten it up over the years. A perfect way to do it is just have back surgery. All those geniuses out there, there you go.”

If he doesn’t play his way onto the Ryder Cup team, Woods hopes he doesn’t have to try to convince Watson with the fact that the matches at Gleneagles in Scotland aren’t until Sept. 26-28.

“I would like to win these two events and not have to worry about anything,” Woods said. “That’s the plan. That’s the mind-set. That’s the focus.”

Woods, 38, is still focused on Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors, saying its importance hasn’t changed as he’s gotten older. Woods has been stuck on 14 since the 2008 U.S. Open.

“I’ve passed a lot of people on the way to get to this point,” Woods said. “You look at the who’s who and the history of the game and the fact there’s only one person ahead of me, it’s not too bad.”

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