LOUISVILLE, Ky. — This we know after a breathless day of Tiger tracking that even featured a slightly premature news release that he had arrived on the grounds of Valhalla Golf Club:
Tiger Woods tied his shoes without grimacing. While laughing and joking with Davis Love III on the practice range, he picked up tees in the same fashion. And his legendary competitiveness and defiance remained intact, three days after his surgically repaired back balked.
“Yes,” Woods said, when asked if he can win the 96th PGA Championship that begins Thursday.
Woods said he will tee off from No. 10 with Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington at 8:35 a.m. Eastern on a par-71 layout that designer Jack Nicklaus has altered since Woods captured the second of his four PGA Championships here in the memorable duel with Bob May in 2000.
That Woods is even here after withdrawing from the final round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational on Sunday speaks to his desire to finally bag his 15th major and also make the Ryder Cup team as a captain’s pick.
Last seen having difficulty removing his shoes after withdrawing, Woods said what happened Sunday in Ohio is unrelated to his March 31 back surgery to address a pinched nerve.
“Basically when I landed in the bunker, my sacrum went out,” Woods said. “It pinched the nerve and hence the spasms. My physio put it back in. We’ve just been treating it, some soft-tissue work. … Once the bone was put back in, the spasms went away and I started getting some range of motion.”
Woods said he decided to play at Valhalla on Tuesday afternoon when his “firing sequence was back to normal” and his “sequencing was good.” And he must feel fine — he fired off a playful tweak at his beloved media when he declared himself “pain-free, except for the headache of talking to you (reporters).”
The will-he-or-won’t-he angle created a surreal day, which didn’t quite reach white Bronco on the freeway levels. But it did feature photographs of his empty parking space and created a circuslike atmosphere around his practice round, played with Love, Steve Stricker and Harris English.
“I know how deeply he wants to be a part of this (Ryder Cup) team,” said Stricker, one of Woods’ close friends on tour. “He wants to get his game going, wants to show he can play, that he’s going to get healthy.”
Woods said he played “all right” on the front nine and then walked the back nine with his putter and wedges to assess the redone greens. He joked his yardage and course book from 2000 is “useless.”
Some might apply that same adjective to Woods’ injury-plagued season, although his colleagues and competitors understand what his presence means. And anyone who forgot needed only to watch his practice-round gallery, atypical in its size and fervor.
“If you win a big tournament without Tiger in the field, you still feel very happy about it,” U.S. Open champion Martin Kaymer said. “But you want to play against him.”
Added Rickie Fowler, who owns top-five finishes in the first three 2014 majors: “The game still does need him. He’s a big draw. A lot of people still love watching him play.”
Woods used to treat major championships like they were his kingdom. But his drought now stretches to the 2008 U.S. Open he won on a knee that required surgery. After missing this year’s Masters and U.S. Open because of injury and tying for 69th at the British Open last month, contending here would add to Woods’ lore.
You never can count him out.
“I haven’t been able to do my agility stuff because I’m still building back up,” Woods said. “I can’t do both at the same time. So when the season is over, I’ll get back to my agility work, my explosiveness, my power — all that stuff back up to where I used to be.”
PGA Championship facts
Where: Valhalla Golf Club, Louisville, Ky.
Course: 7,458 yards, par 71. Since opening in 1986, the Jack Nicklaus-designed course has hosted two other PGA Championships (1996 and 2000), as well as two Senior PGA Championships (2004, 2011) and the 2008 Ryder Cup.
Format: 72-hole stroke play. Cut to low 70 and ties. Playoff if necessary of three-hole aggregate play on holes 13, 17 and 18. If tie remains, sudden death starting on 18th, then 13, 17 and 18.
Defending champion: Jason Dufner (68-63-71-68 — 270), who overtook leader Jim Furyk on eighth hole of final round at Oak Hill CC to win his first major by 2 shots.
TV: Thursday-Friday, noon-6 p.m., TNT. Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., TNT; 1-6 p.m., CBS-2.