NEW YORK • As Tiger Woods prepares for what many pundits believe to be the final chapter of his competitive career, it is fair to say that the crystal ball detailing what lies ahead for him is totally opaque at this point.
No one knows how golf's former world No. 1 will fare should he make his PGA Tour return next month, as he hopes to do. He has been absent since the Wyndham Championship in August last year.
The 14-time Major champion has competed in only 18 events on the US circuit since the end of 2013 while being blighted by injuries and poor form, recording just one top-10 finish during that period along with six missed cuts and three withdrawals.
Ongoing back problems led to surgeries in September last year and again a month later. And Woods, 40, knows full well that time is not on his side as he strives to get his game back in shape.
"I still have work to do," he said in a statement on Wednesday after announcing his intention to make a competitive return next month, beginning with the PGA Tour's Safeway Open in Napa, California.
"Whether I can play depends on my continued progress and recovery."
His long-time friend Notah Begay III, a 43-year-old Native American golfer who won four times on the PGA Tour, was wary of expecting too much too soon.
"He's been on the shelf too long to do any sort of thorough evaluation of where he's at," Begay said on Wednesday in his role as a Golf Channel analyst. "The (practice) range to tournaments to competing to winning tournaments is just a very steep progression."
Woods has not won a tournament since the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and his ranking has plummeted to a mind-boggling 711th after his long spell on the sidelines.
Mental game expert Dr Joe Parent, who helped Major winners Vijay Singh and Cristie Kerr reach top spot in the world rankings, believes Woods' biggest challenge on his return will be regaining sufficient confidence in his fitness and his swing.
"There's a subtle subconscious 'wondering what will trigger the next one', and any time there's a hint of 'protecting' in a golf swing, the shots start to go sideways," Parent said. "And recovery shots, ones that he's so famous for, are often from awkward stances making manufactured swing motions. He's got hurt doing those, and that could happen again."
Woods always used to say he would never tee it up in a golf tournament unless he thought he was capable of winning.
As he prepares to make his return at the Oct 13-16 Safeway Open, that strong statement of intent may no longer be true.