ORLANDO, Fla. -- As ever, Tiger Woods is keeping ‘em guessing.
Despite the fact that he hasn’t worked with his swing coach in two months, Woods said Thursday night that he will play next week at the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, where he has seven wins.
It stands to reason that he’ll play the following week, too, at the season’s final major, the PGA Championship in suburban Atlanta. The host PGA of America confirmed Friday that Woods has committed to play.
"I'm excited to get back out there," Woods said on his website.
Nobody has a clue what to expect, frankly.
Quite possibly including Woods himself.
Woods hasn’t completed 18 holes since the Masters, when he injured a ligament in his left knee and aggravated an Achilles problem in the same leg. He quit after nine holes at the Players Championship in mid-May, after tweaking the same two injuries.
The last time he played at Firestone, he had his worst four-round finish as a professional, finishing second-to last in the field. A week later, he began working with Orlando swing coach Sean Foley and began a complete overhaul of his swing, the results of which remain decidedly mixed.
Woods' website said Thursday night: "Following the advice of his doctors, Woods has rested and rehabbed his left leg, and just recently began hitting practice balls."
However, Foley said Tuesday told CBSSports.com and the Golf Channel that he hasn’t worked with Woods on the practice range in weeks and had no idea when he planned to return to the tour. With the announcement, the two are set to practice together Friday, where there's certainly much work to be done and rust to shake off.
Woods, now spending much of his time in Jupiter, Fla., has a backyard practice area with several short holes, so it stands to reason that he’s been practicing on his own. Woods hasn’t won on the PGA Tour in 22 months, easily the longest drought of his career, and this week dropped to No. 21 in the world, his lowest ranking since his first full season as a pro in 1997.
That’s not all that’s in transition, if not upheaval. Last week he fired Steve Williams, his loyal caddie and point man for the past 12 years, and according to the Golf Channel, will use boyhood friend and employee Bryon Bell on the bag next week at Firestone. Bell caddied for Woods at the Disney World event almost a decade ago and the two have been friends since junior high and played on the same prep golf team together in Southern California.
Bell, who was directly linked to the never-ending Woods sex scandal by online news reports, is now the head of Woods’ near-dormant golf-course design firm, so he’s likely got plenty of spare time.
Woods hasn’t hit a shot since May 12, when he shot 42 on the front nine of the first round at TPC Sawgrass and walked off the course. Over the past few weeks, Woods insisted that this time, he would not return until his leg had fully healed. Doctors have green-lighted Woods to play, agent Mark Steinberg said.
"Cleared and ready to play next week," Steinberg said in an email Thursday night. "Sean is his coach and no changes."
After years of defying medical advice and causing even more wear and tear on a knee that has seen four surgeries, the 35-year-old decided to take a more prudent tack. As a result, he’s only played in six PGA Tour events this year tournaments. He has played 21 official rounds globally, including a first-round loss at the Accenture Match Play.
What happens next? At this point, it’s hard to say.
Firestone is a hilly track and Woods hurt himself hitting fairly routine golf shots from moderately flat terrain at Augusta National and Sawgrass.
“Feeling fit and ready to tee it up at Firestone next week,” Woods tweeted. “Excited to get back out there!”
With an exclamation point, mind you.
It was now or never, for all practical porposes, as it related to the 2011 season.
Had he not played next week, or at the PGA Championship, his season likely would have been over. He is ranked 133rd in FedEx Cup points and only the top 125 advance to the four FedEx series events, which start two weeks after the PGA.
Unless he moves up the points list over the next two weeks, he won’t be eligible to play in any of the four, including the third leg in the series, the BMW Championship, where he won his last PGA Tour title in September, 2009, a few weeks before his career-derailing scandal began.
Woods finished a distant T29 at the PGA Championship in 2001, the last time it was played at Atlanta Athletic Club. He actually committed to play the season's final major three weeks ago, a PGA of America official said Friday. The commitment deadline for the PGA was July 7.