SAN MARTIN, Calif. — This might be more of a cameo than a comeback for Tiger Woods.
Or maybe a little of both.
When he tees off in the Frys.com Open, Woods will have gone 54 days without having hit a meaningful golf shot. That’s the longest stretch of his career without competition when he wasn’t dealing with some form of rehab.
The buzz for his return is predictable. The tournament is close to a sellout, with ticket sales already five times higher than a year ago. There remains no greater draw in golf.
Less predictable is what Woods will do on the course. He is capable of winning at CordeValle, because no matter what he has or hasn’t done in the last two years, he is capable of anything.
“I think this is a fresh start,” swing coach Sean Foley said Tuesday.
And then, Woods will stop again.
What makes this feel like a cameo appearance is Woods has been gone for seven weeks, and after the Frys.com Open, he won’t compete again for a full month when he plays in the Australian Open. He has the inaugural Tiger Woods Invitational next week at Pebble Beach — essentially a fundraiser for his foundation — and most likely has his two children the following week. His schedule was set long before Woods knew how this season would pan out.
After the Australian Open is the Presidents Cup, and then a week off before Woods ends his season at the Chevron World Challenge.
That’s four tournaments over the final three months of the year, hardly the kind of schedule for a player to build any momentum, even a guy who rarely plays more than about 20 times a year even in the best of times.
The best measure of any comeback won’t start until 2012.
One television promotion trumpeted coverage of all four rounds of Woods’ return, forgetting perhaps that unlike his last return at Firestone, the Frys.com Open has a 36-hole cut. Does anyone expect Woods to be gone by the weekend? He was the last time he played, at the PGA Championship.
But what does anyone really know of Woods’ game after a year like this?
There was some good. He shot 30 on the front nine of Augusta National in the final round of the Masters and was briefly tied for the lead until he stalled on the back nine by missing short putts and tied for fourth. That was his best finish this year.
There was plenty of bad, from his 74-75 weekend at Torrey Pines to his nine-hole 42 before withdrawing from The Players Championship to his 77 in the opening round of the PGA Championship, the first time ever in a major that he finished out of the top 100.
Mostly, though, this year gets an “incomplete.”
Woods has played only 117 holes over three tournaments since the Masters. He missed three months, including two majors, this summer when he wisely decided to stop playing until his left knee and Achilles tendon were fully healed. He now says his left leg feels the best it has in years.
Why should anyone expect something different from Woods at a course he has never played than at Firestone, where he had won seven times?
Woods said he feels more prepared this time.
In a conference call last week for the Presidents Cup, he said he was excited to get back to golf “knowing that I’m finally healthy enough to do it now, and I’ve practiced, something I had not done in preparation for Akron and the PGA.”
“But now that I’ve actually practiced, I’ve gotten even stronger in my lifting sessions, so things are definitely shaping up quickly,” he added.
Foley said Woods practiced for about 10 hours before showing up at Firestone, where a good opening round (68) turned into another mediocre week (tied for 37th). He went home for a few days before going to Atlanta Athletic Club, where he fueled more speculation that his best golf was behind him.
“Here you’ve had all this time off as he was trying to do a new swing,” Foley said. “He was quite ingrained when he took time off before and came back to it because it was the swing he was doing. This is really the perfect storm — injured, changing his swing, not being able to put a lot of time into it. That’s the perfect storm for not playing to the level you can.”
“I believe in the direction we’re headed,” he said. “And I obviously believe in how great he is.”
The latest tease was Woods breaking the course record at The Medalist last week with a 62. It was just a practice round with friends, and with no pressure. Then again, Foley points out 100 PGA Tour players have been on Greg Norman’s course in South Florida without doing better than 64.
That really doesn’t matter.
Foley said he gets stopped 500 times a week by people asking about his most famous client, all but a few of them wishing for the best and hopeful that Woods can return to his game. That doesn’t matter, either, nor do the remarks from two or three others who make obnoxious comments.
Ultimately, all that matters is the score on Woods’ card, and that won’t be determined until he tees off Thursday at CordeValle.
And then he’ll be gone for a month.