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Pain-free Tiger Woods is now out-driving Dustin Johnson

Woods wows Brad Faxon during a rehearsal for his return to competition at this week’s Hero World Challenge, but we might want to temper our expectations for a PGA Tour comeback.

World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship - Final Round Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

Tiger Woods is once again knocking the cover off the ball, but more important than reportedly blasting tee shots past those of world No. 1 Dustin Johnson was the amount of aching and soreness the injury-plagued 41-year-old felt ahead of his imminent return to competitive golf.

As in none.

“The fact that I don’t have any pain in my lower back compared to what I was living with for years, it’s just remarkable,” Woods told reporters Sunday after a speedy practice round at Albany, where he will make his first start in almost nine months at this week’s Hero World Challenge.

“I am stiffer. I’m fused [following April’s lumbar fusion], but I don't have the pain,” added Woods, who was back on the tee Monday morning. “Life is so much better.’’

The last we saw Woods in a tournament was when he carded a miserable 77 in the opening round of the Dubai Desert Classic in early February. The owner of 14 major titles who has not won on tour since 2013 withdrew prior to the second round and in April underwent his fourth back procedure since March 2014.

By all accounts, the Hero tournament host appeared healthy and comfortable as he raced around Albany in a golf cart in just over two hours Sunday — and during a casual 18 holes over the weekend with Dustin Johnson, Brad Faxon, and the current occupant of the White House.

In fact, eight-time tour winner Faxon recounted how Woods — who has played sparingly since August 2015 — blasted about half of his tee shots past those of last season’s second-longest driver of the ball.

“I was impressed with how far [Woods] hit the ball,” Faxon wrote in a Golfweek column after the famous foursome’s best-ball match. “Probably on the 10 holes that they were both hitting driver, Tiger hit it past Dustin half the time and Dustin hit it past Tiger half the time.

“He looked great. I think more than anything, he looked at ease. He was not concerned about swinging hard and going at it with driver,” Faxon observed. “The ball flight, the sound off the club, all of it was right there.”

Add Patrick Reed to the likes of DJ and Rickie Fowler as tour members Woods has blown past as he prepares for his first competitive round since Dubai, and the winner of 79 tour victories should walk away with the trophy on Sunday, right?

Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Even Faxon, in the role of a Woods fanboy, suggested we pump the brakes just a tad on the Big Cat of yore regaining his championship form right off the bat.

"I witnessed first-hand what Fowler saw — a pain-free Tiger that looked like he was able to hit the golf ball and will be able to be in the mix again,” Faxon concluded. “I don’t want to make it sound like I’m saying he’s going to win next week. It’s obviously different playing a fun, casual round like this as opposed to a tournament. But he’s in a great place mentally and physically.”

Even the superstar himself — who conceded that improvement after April’s operation had been sluggish but that he was pleased with his deliberate improvement — had yet to make his formerly characteristic boast that he was in it to win it.

“I’ve progressed over a few days, hitting driver a little hard and harder and harder until it was comfortable enough to hit it full,” Woods said about the evolution of his current swing. “That takes time and the last thing I want to do is have any setbacks.”

Woods made no prognostications about whether he would score better than his 15th-place finish at last year’s World Challenge. For sure, though, he said he was excited to be back on track with his fitness and anxious to see how he stacked up against some of the world’s best.

“It’s nice to compare my game to some of the other guys, like Dustin or Rickie or Rory [McIlroy],” Woods diplomatically noted about guys who have actually been playing in tourneys while he was on the DL. “It’s nice to do something like that and compete and have a couple little denominations [a bet] we’re playing for. I like seeing where I’m at.”

As will the rest of the golf world when Woods sticks a peg in the ground on Thursday, the start of the 18-player, no-cut contest in the Bahamas.