LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Tiger Woods arrived at Valhalla Golf Club for the 96th PGA Championship on Wednesday, and after playing a nine-hole practice round, he confirmed that he will be competing in the tournament.
Woods made his way through Valhalla's front nine alongside Steve Stricker, Harris English and Davis Love III, then opted only to walk the back nine.
Woods stopped at a podium in between the ninth green and tenth tee and held an impromptu press conference. Asked if he was "definitely in for tomorrow," Woods responded simply, "Yeah." He said that he was pain-free and stressed that his recent injury was unrelated to his March 31 back surgery, involving instead his sacrum, a large bone at the base of the spine.
"It was a different pain than what I had been experiencing, so I knew it wasn't the site of the surgery," Woods said. "Basically, when I landed on the bunker, my sacrum went out. So pinched the nerve and hence the spasm."
Woods dismissed any danger associated with teeing it up on a fragile back, adding that his physical therapist is with him at the club in case the issue flares up again.
Sporting sunglasses and a goatee upon arrival, Woods headed straight to the driving range with caddie Joe LaCava. Hundreds of fans crowded around a staircase as he crossed over above them, snapping photos of the 14-time major champion with their phones. He pulled out a wedge and started his session with some easy half-swings, eventually working his way up to the driver.
Woods moved slowly but showed no visible signs of discomfort as he bent over to tee up his ball.
After less than an hour on the range, he strolled to No. 1 for his practice round ahead of his scheduled Thursday morning tee time.
His presence had the gallery surrounding the driving range abuzz. Spectators flocked to the first hole, piling four or five deep along the 450-yard par-4 to see his first shot.
He didn’t disappoint. Woods’ split the fairway with his first drive, cutting up and over the trees to the left. His second shot gave them something to cheer about as he stuffed his approach to 10 feet. He didn’t spray a drive until the fifth, when a big bounce of a hill sent his ball careening over spectators’ heads and into the long grass.
Woods hit multiple tee shots on many holes on the front nine, alternating between driver and 3-wood, hitting most fairways and delighting a crowd more typical of a Sunday.
Following back surgery, Woods missed three months of the season, including the Masters and the U.S. Open. He has played three tournaments since his return, but he withdrew from last week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, eight holes into the final round after "jarring" his back during an awkward shot on the second hole.
Woods' absence led to endless photos of his vacant parking spot.
Now, that spot is filled.
"He still has a huge impact, especially on the media side," Rickie Fowler said. "You can see all the attention with last week WD'ing and this week not registering, not sure if he's playing yet. I want to see Tiger around, but I want to see him healthy and at his best."
More realistically, he wants to show U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson that he is healthy enough to be one of three wild-card picks for the September competition in Scotland.
"I can't answer that yet," Watson said Wednesday, speaking right about the time Woods arrived. "A lot can happen between now and then."
Watson said he would take Woods' at his word on the condition of his back.
"He's always been straight up with me," Watson said.
Woods, however, said that he's setting more concrete goals for the moment.
"Just play well," he said. "That's the only thing I can control. Try to go out there and win this event."
Sean Zak and The Associated Press contributed to this report.