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Tiger Woods comfortable discussing struggles, even LeBron vs. Jordan, in advance of Players Championship

The last time Tiger Woods teed it up competitively in Florida, he was on the cusp of winning.

Woods returns nearly two months later searching his for game — and his first victory in nearly five years.

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Shaky iron play at the Masters and an ice-cold putter during last week's Wells Fargo Championship have stalled a comeback that had defied odds and expectations.

Woods, a little more than a year removed from spinal fusion surgery, looks to put all the pieces together beginning Thursday during his first Players Championship appearance in three years.

"I haven't played here in a little bit now, and excited to come back and play, take a look at the golf course, see how it's playing," Woods said Tuesday. "I haven't seen the new changes yet, so looking forward to seeing a few of those little tweaks, and just looking forward to playing in The Players Championship again."

Anything is possible this week with Woods, from a missed cut to a spot on the Sunday leaderboard. Even while at the top of the game, Woods experienced mixed results at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, where he won twice (2001, 2013) but also finished outside the top 20 five times from 1997 to 2007.

Among Woods' last four visits to TPC are a withdrawal for neck pain in 2010, a win and a tie for 69th place in 2015 — his last appearance in the PGA Tour's showcase event. Since then, Woods has undergone three back surgeries that made him wonder if he would ever swing a golf club again.

The 42-year-old's return has given him a greater appreciation for golf. But consecutive top-five finishes by Woods during the Florida swing in March created greater expectations of himself.

"Yeah, it does," he said. "I had no idea what to expect. So this is all new to me. This is all exciting because I didn't know what to expect."

Since his return, Woods has been less predictable in the public eye and more approachable with fans.

Woods used to arrive to tournament completely dialed in, but he is now is comfortable commenting on more than the state of his golf game. Woods also sticks around to sign autographs.

He spoke about Thursday's much-anticipated pairing with Phil Mickelson and opened up about his growing friendship with the fellow star.

"Our relationship has certainly gotten a lot closer with me being a vice captain the last couple teams," Woods said, referring to the 2016 Ryder Cup and 2017 Presidents Cup, "and sitting there and having very lengthy conversations with him about things; not just the pairings but just about things in general."

Woods even discussed the greatness of LeBron James, ending the press conference with a comprehensive breakdown of the games of James and Michael Jordan.

Woods concluded, "At the end of the day, they both win, and they're both guys that we look at and say, 'It's unbelievable what they're doing', and they're just changing the game, the game how it's played. We didn't know it could be played that way, and they both have done it."

Woods changed the way people viewed golf. The question remains can he still win on tour?

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Healthy for the first time in years, Woods has given reason for hope among his fans. He also has planted seeds of doubt.

Needing a birdie to force a playoff at the Valspar Championship in Tampa on March 10, Woods played conservatively with an iron off the 442-yard closing hole to leave himself with a long approach shot that landed 40 feet from the hole. The following Sunday at Orlando's Bay Hill Club and Lodge, Woods was one shot off the lead when he hit a driver out of bounds on the par-five 16th.

Even for a player with 79 PGA Tour wins, each showing was a rare moral victory, but Woods has not been near the lead during two starts since.

Woods' iron play deserted him at Augusta National Golf Club during the Masters.

"I kept leaving myself above the hole in places where I just couldn't miss the ball," he said. "I felt like I was putting defensively for the entire week, and I could never get the ball in the correct spots. That was frustrating."

Like his iron play, Woods' short game and putting during the Florida swing resembled the the Tiger of old. But last week at Quail Hollow, Woods took at least 30 putts in all four rounds and posted just one round in the 60s on his way to a tie for 55th place.

"I just didn't make anything," he said. "Geez, I hit — one of the days I hit a bunch of greens, like 15 greens, and still I turned a 63 or 64 into 68."

As he exited the interview room, Woods made a beeline for the putting green at TPC Sawgrass. It has been some time since he's played designer Pete Dye's demanding layout, but Woods is well aware of the challenge ahead.

"It was 12 years between wins here, and so just looking at my record, I didn't play this place well," he said. "I struggled with it. There's no way of faking it around this golf course."

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