The wait is over, and you can almost hear a palpable gasp of relief throughout professional golf. But don’t exhale completely, not just yet.
After an eight-month layoff that felt even longer to fans and PGA Tour officials, Tiger Woods announced Thursday night that he would return to competitive play next week at the Accenture Match Play Championship in Marana, Ariz, where he is the defending champion.
Pay attention, because while the comeback represents the biggest event to date in 2009 outside of the Super Bowl, it’s possible it will be a short stay.
We’re not talking merely about potential competitive rust, either. While Woods has been preparing nonstop for weeks for his much-awaited resurfacing, the World Golf Championships tournament is filled with the best players on the planet, and almost as many question marks for the world No. 1.
Woods won the match-play title in 2003, 2004 and 2007, covering two different sites. Apart from questions about the status of his left knee and the swing changes he’s said to have made to help protect it from further damage, a series of smaller hurdles remain.
First, of course, is the format. How long he’ll survive is anybody’s guess, since the best player doesn’t always win in match play. The event begins a day early on Wednesday and the volatile format means he could be kicked to the curb after one day – he almost lost in the first round last year to J.B. Holmes before staging a trademark rally down the stretch. Woods was bounced in the first round in 2002, in fact.
Secondly, the course is a true wild card. The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain is a new Jack Nicklaus design that sits in the Sonoran Desert foothills north of Tucson has never before hosted a professional event. It marks the Accenture event’s third course in four years, following La Costa Resort and the Dove Mountain South Course venue the past two years.
Third, with a field of 64 players, if Woods continues to take care of business as a No. 1 seed, he faces the possibility of playing 36 holes on the weekend days, including in the finals. He is said to have been favoring his knee when walking, according to those who have seen him practicing at home in Orlando recently. Then again, the guy walked 91 holes to win the U.S. Open, with two fractures and a blown ligament in his knee.
Fourth, for believers in odd geographical kismet, Woods is set to play relatively unheralded Australian Brendan Jones in the first round. Aussies, for whatever reason, have had his number in the match-play format over the years. When he was bounced in the first round in 2002, it was at the hands of unknown Peter O’Malley, an Australian with a minimal pedigree. In 2005 and 2007, he was upset by Aussie left-hander Nick O’Hern, who is now one of his Orlando neighbors. In other words, he’s won the match-play title three times in the past seven years and been bounced by an Aussie in three of his other tries.
Outside of the quirky Australian asterisk, all of the above were believed to be reasons why Woods might elect to skip the match play event in favor of a more predictable 72-hole affair in Miami or Orlando in March. But rest assured, Woods doesn’t think in those terms.
As for his state of readiness, Woods has played exactly once since the Masters last April, winning the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in June and undergoing knee reconstruction immediately thereafter. Woods has a ligament transplanted from his thigh area. In his absence, TV ratings have sagged, the economy has takes a nosedive and it’s felt like a pall has been hanging over the sport.
Enough delicious plotlines for you?
As though Woods doesn’t make news wherever he goes under normal circumstances, next week’s opener on the Eldrick Comeback Tour will be music to everybody’s eyes, if you will. Just don’t blink, because it might be a short stint in the spotlight, whether he feels ready or not.