Woods says he's ready; no time like the present to prove it

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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SAN MARTIN, Calif. -- Fits and spurts, stops and starts, trees and hedges, physical hurdles and brain-related barriers.

Forget trying to guess how Tiger Woods will play Thursday as he returns to PGA Tour competition after yet another lengthy layoff. The stiffer challenge is trying to count the number of comebacks he has staged in the past three years.

He had knee surgery in 2008 and the career-altering scandal of late 2009, followed by a series of neck, Achilles and knee issues, and then he flat flunked out of the FedEx Cup sweepstakes eight weeks ago and wasn't eligible to play.

Woods has been in the picture only intermittently, and has even less often been relevant. Continuity has been as much of a myth as his former world-beating stature, which has become an increasingly distant memory.

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Back on the course again, Woods spent Wednesday knocking it around in the pro-am at the Frys.com Open, a third-tier Fall Series event that he'd never normally play, but given the hiccups and hiatus, it felt like another season opener.

"Just getting my playing instincts back," he said.

Finally fit and coming off two months of solid prep time, we'll finally get an idea of whether his instincts are extinct.

"I think this is a new start for him," swing coach Sean Foley said. "Not a comeback. Not a cameo. This is a new start in the rest of his career."

Maybe it's the last one. He's surely running out of alibis.

Kicked to the curb when he failed to advance to the FedEx series, Woods has been playing two and three rounds daily in South Florida, trying to get his sea legs back under him and shaking off the rust. Because of a variety of health and eligibility issues, Woods has played a total of 6½ PGA Tour rounds in six months since the Masters, a pittance that would make some 30-handicap amateurs laugh.

Every time Woods seemed to be turning a corner, he ran into a wall. At the Masters, where he finished T4, Woods felt like his offseason of work with Foley was finally starting to congeal, but he hurt his knee in the third round and it was back on the shelf again.

"I was basically shut down from the Masters to Bridgestone," he said.

Tiger Woods and new caddie Joe LaCava are ready for their new future as a tandem. (US Presswire)  
Tiger Woods and new caddie Joe LaCava are ready for their new future as a tandem. (US Presswire)  
Shut down and shut in. Woods was incapacitated, unable to practice for weeks at a time. So while we're all tired of hearing about the lack of "reps," and how it has precipitated some downright embarrassing shots at times, there's truth in it. He's been on and off the disabled list so often for the past three years, there's been no "rhythm" or "flow," as he put it Wednesday.

Not anymore. Foley estimated that he drove down Florida's Turnpike five times to work with Woods over the past few weeks at his new home track in Hobe Sound, where the former world No. 1 shot a 62 in a practice round last week, breaking the Medalist Golf Club record by two strokes.

"I've done all the legwork," Woods said. "Now it's time to play."

Not to mention produce like he still has some tread left on the wheels. Woods signed an endorsement deal with Rolex on Wednesday, but he doesn't need a $25,000 timepiece to know he hasn't won on the PGA Tour in more than two years. In this league, the meter is always running. In that span, there have been 29 first-time winners.

Woods, obstinate as ever, was outlining the same counter-intuitive goals that had fans scratching their heads at his last two starts, the Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship, where he finished T37 and missed the cut. "Getting a 'W,'" he said.

That's shorthand for win, not withdrawal. The objective is the same -- now we'll see about the results. Since January, Woods has plunged 49 spots to No. 51 in the world, and this week marks the first time in 15 years he has been ranked outside the top 50. Area 51, isn't that the area of foggy mystery where aliens landed years ago? At times over the past two years, it has seemed like Woods has been abducted, given the full probe, and then been released, groggy and uncertain of where he's headed, or what he was supposed to be doing.

But now that he pronounced himself healthier than he's been in years, and had time to dial in his game with eight to 10 hours of daily work, we should get a telling glimpse this week into whether he's still got the goods.

"Basically the lead leg is better than it's been at least three years," Foley said. "What he's able to do is put the reps in. People go, 'Oh the reps thing again.' Listen to any human-motion expert. The reps is the reps.

"When you have so many starts and stops because you're injured and there is a lack of continuity, it's very easy for the brain to go back to its most familiar pattern. There's no way around that."

To recap: Injured, unhappy, learning an unfamiliar swing.

"That's probably the perfect storm for not playing as well as you can," Foley said. "I believe in the direction we're headed wholeheartedly and I obviously believe in how great he is. I just think if we're patient and keep working hard, we'll be right where we need to be."

It was only a practice round, but Woods certainly took a scenic, unimpressive tour of the CordeValle Golf Club in his pro-am. He hit a pair of towering hooks off the tee on his front nine, then hit two drivers into water hazards on the back. It wasn't exactly clean.

"We're still fine-tuning it, obviously," Woods said. "But the major overhaul is done."

One thing hasn't changed. Though Woods has often seemed to be going through the motions at times over his two years of recalibration and reinvention, Foley says the competitive fire is still there.

"Like a furnace at a coal mine," Foley cracked.

Is anybody still burning for Woods? Clearly, there are folks who believe he is a bankable commodity. The watchmaker, for one, which said, "Tiger Woods still has a long career ahead of him and has all the qualities required to continue to mark the history of golf."

As the wags fast noted, that depends on how you define "mark."

His new caddie, Joe LaCava, just parted ways with world No. 5 Dustin Johnson to take a flier on Woods and said there was no second-guessing on his part whatsoever, despite what the experts or their numbers say. Johnson has three wins since Woods last chalked up a U.S. victory. He took the job for a pretty obvious reason.

"Because he's Tiger Woods," LaCava shrugged after the pro-am round. "It's a no-brainer, isn't it?"

Starting this week, we'll finally find out.

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