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Memorial kicks off Tiger's post-Haney era

"How about that?" smirked Tiger Woods, "I'm not retired yet."

Woods returned to competitive golf -- well, it was sort of competitive -- in a friendly nine-hole skins game Wednesday ahead of this week's Memorial Tournament and claimed six of the skins.

"Pretty good for me," he shrugged with tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation.

I can report with some confidence that he hasn't totally forgotten how to play golf.

There was, of course, much more at stake for Woods than the $50,000 in charity dollars he, Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson, Steve Stricker and Rory McIlroy were playing for.

The last we saw Woods, three weeks ago, he had a pain in his neck: literally, as opposed to the metaphorical one he's experienced since last Thanksgiving.

The neck injury forced him to withdraw from The Players.

The week before, at Charlotte's Quail Hollow, he missed the cut. The neck was bothering him then, too, but even before he'd put a swing on a golf ball, he seemed distracted and sullen.

Perhaps understandably, as he's had a lot on his mind since his world was turned upside down by a sex scandal.

But Woods sounded Wednesday like a man finding at least some resolution.

"Life is moving forward," he said.

"The last six months have been pretty tough, and I'm now starting to get into golf and starting to play golf again and get into my routine of playing, which is something I haven't done in a long time.

"So hopefully I can get back into that and play the rest of the summer and into the fall."

The Memorial marks Woods' first tournament since his official split from swing coach Hank Haney. He's moved closer to the ball and is swinging more upright, though judging by the nine holes on Wednesday, it's still a work-in-progress.

He began brightly, draining a 20-footer downhill for birdie on greens faster than Augusta's, then launched a majestic 3-iron from 228 yards to set up an eagle from 6 feet which he converted.

But other swings were forgettable.

"I think he lost a little concentration in the middle but it looked good," said Furyk.

"I never really thought he was in all that much trouble; I'm trying to figure out what the heck you guys have been writing about."

I asked Furyk whether he thought Woods would bounce back. It's strange to ask the question -- this is Tiger Woods we're talking about, after all -- but it's just not a certainty anymore, is it? Who knows what toll the past six months have taken on him?

"I'm not a mind reader or looking in a crystal ball but it's just a matter of time 'til he starts playing well," Furyk said.

"Whether it's this week or the U.S. Open or three months from now, it's just a matter of time. He's the best player that we've seen since Jack Nicklaus and arguably when he finishes maybe the best ever, so it's just a matter of time."

Getting over the neck injury -- which required treatment and rest and is still being iced -- obviously has helped.

"My neck feels pretty good," Woods said. "Still not where I want it to be, but the inflammation has calmed down. I got range of motion again. It's a little bit sore after a good hard day of practice, but I can recover for the next day, which is good."

He said the injury had "quite a bit" of effect on his play this year.

"I had a hard time turning back. I had a hard time turning through. And the headaches were just unreal at times. That was the hard part," he said.

Woods is the defending champion here -- this was his finest performance of 2009 -- but even he's not sure what to expect.

Understandable given that he's played only nine competitive rounds this year.

"It would be nice to get four rounds in and be in contention and hopefully win this thing," he said.

"That's kind of where I'd like to be. I'd like to see where my game is at going into the Open, and I should get a full tournament in, which I haven't had since the Masters."

Although he's been playing again for less than a week after waiting for the inflammation in his neck to subside, Woods reported that he'd been playing well.

"I've hit the ball much better. It's just like anything, though, it's great to hit it at home, but I need to bring it out here," he said.

"Ultimately, once you bring it out here, you've got to bring it to a major championship. Once you do that, you've got to bring it to the major championship on a Sunday on the back nine. There's steps to it.

It's that process that I need to get back to, and I've just got to be more patient with myself on that because I haven't played."

He said he wasn't working with another coach but was using video to monitor himself.

He's added loft to his driver, which says he's going to try to hit his tee shots more on the upswing than he's been doing.

"The (old) driver's good, but in the wind I wasn't getting full benefit," he said. "I was spinning a little bit too much."

In what was an expansive news conference, Woods spoke too about the evolution of his swing. He didn't sound like he was returning to the swing of his youth, which he used to dominate opponents.

"I can't make that swing anymore. I don't have the speed," he said.

"I'm getting older."