Rusty Tiger ready to return


Tiger Woods kept it brief Friday, three quick sentences turning the golf world upside down with the relatively surprising announcement that he is returning to competition next week.

But while it took Woods just 58 words to get the media scrambling and the folks at Congressional Country Club in Washington, D.C., buzzing, they spoke volumes.

If Woods was being honest, then next week's Quicken Loans National should be treated as nothing more than the equivalent of a minor league rehab assignment for a player on the mend.

Woods said he has "just started'' to hit full shots and that he expects to be a "bit rusty'' when he returns to the PGA Tour for the first time in more than three months following back surgery. So it would reasonably follow that Woods is nowhere near ready to compete against the best in the world.

A month ago, he was chipping and putting, unsure of when he could truly get back. Only recently he began hitting full shots, and who knows with how much force, how much accuracy. And if it occurs pain-free.

The public stage has never been a place where Woods has sought to find his game, but that is what he is about to try to do, and the expectations -- his and everyone else's -- ought to be tempered.

The problem is, that has never been his style. Woods' mantra almost from Day 1 is that he plays to win. He doesn't show up if he's not ready. Perhaps some have thought otherwise at times, but he typically believed it and said so at nearly every turn.

An excellent example occurred three years ago at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Woods had suffered knee and Achilles injuries during that year's Masters.

He tried to come back at the Players Championship, realized nine holes in that he wasn't ready -- might have even made it worse -- and then didn't return for three months.

Woods opened that tournament with an impressive 68 but struggled the rest of the way, failing to break par on a Firestone Country Club course he has owned over his career. He tied for 38th.

After the Friday round, Woods was clearly frustrated, having stated prior to the tournament that he expected to be in contention.

I remember the following exchange, because the question I asked evoked an unusually curt reply and a patented Tiger death stare.

Basically, I wanted to know why his expectations were so high given a nearly fourth-month layoff.

"Would it be so bad for you to set a lower goal, just ease back into this after what you've been through?''

Woods: "No.''

"Why not?''

Woods: "Never have. Why show up at a tournament if you're not there to win. There's no reason to come.''

"There would be other guys who came back from injury ... ''

Woods: "I'm not other guys.''

And there you have it. Woods wasn't buying the notion that there should be any grace period, but it appears he's set himself up this time for something less than his best.

As it should be.

He's coming off a serious operation, one that means some adjustments, perhaps some difficulty with his swing.

He's not competed for three months, and when he did, Woods was in pain. The typical recovery time for this surgery is three to four months, and while Woods is not your average person, he's also not immune to the struggles that could understandably be apparent so soon.

The Quicken Loans event benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation, and it is hard to believe Woods would return at this tournament if that were not the case.

Now in its eighth year, Woods would have missed it for the fourth time had he not decided to play, and Woods knows more than anyone just how much his absence from a tournament is felt.

The following week is the Greenbrier Classic, and while Woods has yet to commit to that tournament, he played it two years ago and was supposed to play last year before an elbow injury kept him from playing between the U.S. Open and Open Championship.

Since it is widely believed that some inducements might be part of a deal to get Woods to play in West Virginia, how bad would it look if he skipped his own tournament and then showed up the next week? So perhaps that is in play here as well.

Regardless, Woods is coming back. This would appear to suggest that he'll be fit for the Open Championship next month and the PGA Championship in August, both at venues where he has won major championships. We can speculate whether he'll earn enough points to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs and impress U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson enough to make him an at-large pick for Gleneagles in September.

But first, some small, measured steps are in order as Woods progresses down this comeback road. Expectations should be at a minimum -- most of all his own.