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Fit Tiger feels no rust from layoff

AKRON, Ohio, August 3- Former World No. 1 Tiger Woods said he felt as physically fit as he has been in years and not rusty following a nine-hole practice round Tuesday ahead of his first event after an 11-week injury layoff.

The 14-time major champion, chasing the record 18 major titles won by Jack Nicklaus, will return Thursday in the first round of the World Golf Championship Bridgestone Invitational paired alongside British Open champion Darren Clarke.

“I’m ready to go,” Woods said. “Doctors gave me the clearance to go, so here I am. Started back practicing a couple weeks ago, which was nice. I feel good now and here I am.”

Woods, who has not won a title in 22 months and slid to 28th in the world rankings, is a seven-time winner at Firestone Country Club, although he posted his worst 72-hole pro score the last time he played the course.

Woods has not played a competitive round since withdrawing after the first nine holes of the Players Championship last May, when Woods aggravated left knee and Achilles tendon injuries that he suffered last April at the Masters.

With boyhood pal Bryon Bell serving as his caddie in the wake of his firing of long-time bagman Steve Williams, Woods toured the familiar course early in the morning and said he felt in solid form.

“The shots felt very crisp, very clean. I was very pleased,” Woods said. “My start lines were good. They were nice and tight, which was good. Everything we have been working on we’re very pleased with. Just got to keep working at it.”

Woods sent encouraging text messages to Clarke ahead of the Ulsterman’s final round at last month’s British Open, words of encouragement that remain between the two but ones Clarke cited as inspirational in his triumph.

“He has always been a great friend to me,” Woods said. “It was great to see Darren play well. He’s gone through a lot in his life and to see him win an Open Championship, the one that he covets the most, that’s very special.”

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Woods said he has already had “a ton” of applicants for the caddie job that Bell takes over on a temporary basis this week and next week, when Woods bids for a 15th major title at the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club.

“I thought it was time for a change,” Woods said of firing Williams. “I felt that Stevie and I have had just an amazing run. Steve is a hell of a caddie, there’s no denying that. He’s helped my career, and I think I’ve helped his.

“We’ve had a great partnership for 12 years, won a bunch of tournaments, but I just felt it was time to change things up a little bit. I felt very comfortable with the move.”

Asked about Williams saying he felt like he had wasted the past two years of his life sticking with Woods in the wake of a 2009 sex scandal, Woods said, “Well, that’s what he says and what he feels.”

Woods said he has no timetable for naming a new caddie but wants someone with experience at dealing with pressure of top-level golf and noted that he hopes to qualify for the 125-man US PGA playoffs that start later this month.

“(I want) someone that obviously understands the pressure of the game coming down the back nine, someone who probably has been there before and who understands it and can deal with that,” Woods said. “That’s something that I will definitely be looking for.”

Woods said his expectations remain the same as ever, to win any event he enters.

England’s World No. 1 Luke Donald, who won the WGC Match-Play crown in February, will be paired with Masters champion Charl Schwartzel of South Africa for the first two rounds.

World No. 2 Lee Westwood of England will play alongside 2010 US Open winner Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland while defending champion Hunter Mahan of the United States is joined by McDowell’s countryman Rory McIlroy, the US Open champion.

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