LOS ANGELES • Tiger Woods, 14 months removed from his last competitive outing, nearing his 41st birthday and in recovery from multiple back surgeries, still ignites interest like no other golfer.
The 14-time Major champion will tee it up on Thursday at the Silverado Resort in Napa, California, in his first competitive start since a 10th-place finish at the Wyndham Championship on Aug 23 last year.
The normally low-key Safeway Open, the start of the USPGA Tour's 2016-17 season in California's Wine Country north of San Francisco, is suddenly the centre of the golfing world.
"I'm sort of glad I'm not there that week," world No. 3 Rory McIlroy said when Woods announced the projected timetable for his return last month. "It's going to be a bit of a circus."
Compared to 45 media outlets accredited last year, 106 have done so this year, with the organisers doubling the physical size of their media centre.
Tiger Woods will end a 14-month hiatus when he tees off at the Safeway Open on Thursday.
A similar jump in ticket sales is expected, with some reports suggesting fans could be treated to a superstar pairing of Woods and five-time Major winner Phil Mickelson in the opening rounds.
Not that Woods needs any help to draw the spotlight, despite widespread speculation on just where his game might be after more than a year of painstaking rehabilitation.
"We've played nine holes together. He's pounding it a mile and flushing everything... his trajectory and ball flight are like the Tiger we knew 15 years ago," Sweden's Jesper Parnevik told Golf Digest early this month. "Comebacks are never a sure thing, but something tells me his might be spectacular."
Woods, who will turn 41 on Dec 30, might settle for steady, with no setbacks.
In May, Woods said he had to adapt to a new reality, that his body is no longer able to support eight to 10 hours of practice a day or daily runs of 10km.
Still, he said in June: "I can play with these guys. I know I still can. I just need to get healthy enough where I can do it on a regular basis."
On Thursday, Woods and the rest of the world will begin to find out if he has achieved that level of fitness.
Although he has been sidelined before by various ankle, knee and leg injuries, not to mention the notorious collapse of his marriage amid revelations of his infidelity - this 14-month hiatus is the longest of his career.
He has not won since the 2013 WGC Bridgestone Invitational, the 79th PGA Tour title of his career leaving him three shy of the record held by Sam Snead.
His most recent Major title came on one of those painful knees at the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines, and since then he has looked less and less likely to break the record of 18 Majors won by Jack Nicklaus.
The man who reigned at No. 1 for 683 weeks is not even in the top 700 now.
That does not matter, says McIlroy.
"He brings an aura and an atmosphere to a tournament that no one else in golf can bring," said the Northern Irishman, who like everyone else is eager to see what Woods will produce next.
"It's different trying to get back from an injury at 40 years old than it is when you're in your 20s or early 30s," McIlroy said. "I think that's why it's been over a year since we have seen him on a golf course.
"It would be great to see him give it one last shot... hopefully he can get back on the course and stay healthy for a prolonged period of time and give it one last go."