NORTON, Mass. — On and off the golf course, Tiger Woods didn't look anything like the player who only four days ago dropped to knees with back pain.
He took full, powerful swings with the driver at the TPC Boston, and he had no trouble gouging shots from the deep rough. He stooped over without hesitation to remove his tee from the ground or retrieve his golf ball from the cup.
Even more telling was the catch.
Sitting behind a table at his news conference Thursday, someone tossed Woods a bottle of water from about 25 feet away. The throw was a little wide. Woods instinctively twisted to his right and reached out his hand to grab it.
"The back has been ... it's a lot better than obviously on Sunday," Woods said at the Deutsche Bank Championship. "It was nice to have that extra day of rest. Having the tournament start on Friday certainly helps. And I've gotten treatment every day, two to three times a day. And it feels good."
It was the third time this year Woods has shown physical discomfort on golf course. An elbow injury forced him to miss two tournaments in the early summer. He was grabbing his lower back in the final round of the PGA Championship. And then at The Barclays last week, after complaining of a stiff lower back from sleeping on a soft mattress in his hotel, Woods fell to his knees on the 13th hole after what he said was a back spasm on his second shot to a par 5.
His health figures to be a talking point at the Deutsche Bank Championship, at least until he gets to the 10th tree Friday morning to begin the tournament in the ultimate power grouping — Woods, British Open champion Phil Mickelson and Masters champion Adam Scott, who not only are Nos. 1-2-3 in the FedEx Cup, but 1-2-3 in the world.
Even before he could hit his first tee shot in the pro-am, one of the amateurs asked him about his back.
The question was inevitable. The answer was predictable.
"It's fine," Woods said.
The rest of the round was just like any other. There was no indication of injury, plenty of laughs and even the occasional, "Good shot, Mike," from Woods. He was speaking to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of his amateur partners.
Woods said he had planned to play nine holes, and then only chip and putt on the back nine as a precaution, just as he did last week at Liberty National.
"But it felt good, so I continued playing," he said.
Woods said the treatment was similar to the strain in his left elbow two months ago — electric stimulation, ice, ultrasound and massage. Still unclear was whether how much he would be able to practice before and after rounds. Woods said that would be "day to day."
"This was the first day I hit balls or swung a club since Sunday," he said. "And it was a pleasant surprise to go out there and play without any discomfort today."
That was a good sign, because even for the second of four tournaments, the FedEx Cup playoffs already have turned up a notch.
While it's traditional for the top three players in the standings to be in the same group for the opening rounds of the playoff events, this is the first time it features the top three players in the world ranking.
"It's exciting, I know for me, to have it 1, 2, 3 in the world," Woods said. "It also goes to show you that those are three hottest players in the world."
These three players last played together in an opening round in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, the first time the USGA used the world ranking to group top players. Woods went on to win his 14th major that week while playing on a shattered left knee with two stress fractures. Mickelson played the mighty South Course without a driver.
"The buildup to that event was huge," Scott said. "And just to be even the third wheel in that group was really something I'll remember forever. So it might be the same tomorrow. I don't know, but it will be fun no matter what. We're all playing really well this year. So hopefully, we can push each other along and make a lot of birdies, and it will be an enjoyable couple of days."
So who's the third wheel now?
"It would be me again," Scott said with a laugh.
Those three players also are seen as the top candidates as player of the year — Scott and Mickelson both have a major among their two PGA Tour wins (Mickelson picked up another significant win at the Scottish Open), while Woods has five wins and no majors. Woods is still the heavy favorite, though a FedEx Cup title for Scott and Mickelson might change that.
Rory McIlroy is the defending champion, and still looking for his first win this year.
Woods, meanwhile, is at a stage of the season where his vernacular has changed. He used to talk about "reps" and "traj" (trajectory) and "the process." These days, he's using terms related to his treatment like "activation" and "firing sequence" and "protocol."
Woods is 37 and has four knee operations behind him. Some nagging injuries this year aren't a concern.
"It's part of playing sports, you know?" Woods said. "We push it and we have little knick-knack injuries that happen. And I've had plenty of surgeries over the course of my career, starting in '94 when I was in college. So it's the nature of what we do as an athlete. I try to do a lot of preventive things, but the nature of it is that we're subjecting our bodies to things that probably it wasn't meant to do."