BETHESDA, United States (AFP) - Tiger Woods made final preparations on Monday for his return to competitive golf after a three-month injury layoff, a test at Congressional Country Club that could herald a British Open appearance.
On the same day he sank to fifth in the world rankings, Woods hosted a private pro-am event for club members ahead of the US$6.5 million (S$8.1 million) US PGA National, which begins Thursday at the difficult 7,574-yard layout in suburban Washington.
"I will be a bit rusty but I want to play myself back into competitive shape," Woods said in announcing he would play this week. "Excited for the challenge ahead." Woods, who won the National in 2009 and 2012, has a Tuesday practice round and will tee off at 6:30 Wednesday morning in a pro-am event for the tournament, which benefits his charity foundation.
"You just have to take it day by day," said Sean Foley, Woods' swing coach. "There's really not a whole lot to it. It's just seeing how he feels day to day, warming up and playing the course." If Woods plays well at the National, he is expected to play in the British Open, which starts July 17 at Royal Liverpool, where he won the 2006 British Open.
Woods, 38, would then be only three weeks from the year's last major event, the PGA Championship at Valhalla, where Woods won the 2000 PGA Championship.
The 14-time major champion, chasing the all-time record of 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, missed the Masters and US Open after undergoing a March 31 microdiscectomy, back surgery to ease pressure on a pinched nerver.
Woods, overtaken for world number one by Adam Scott last month and passed by Matt Kuchar for fourth in the rankings on Monday, has not played since March 9 at Doral, when he fired his worst career final round, a 78, while nagged by back pain.
There is concern Woods, whose 79 career wins are three shy of Sam Snead's PGA record, might be trying to return too soon after the surgery over the hilly par-71 course with dense rough.
"I'm just hoping that he doesn't push it too early, too soon and re-injure himself," said Australian Jason Day, who admitted that his playing this year's Masters before a left thumb injury was fully healed was a setback in his recovery.
"As long as he's 100 percent healthy, it's good for him to come back. It's good to get those competitive juices flowing again. There's nothing quite like tournament golf. He definitely needs to play a tournament before Royal Liverpool.
"The golfing world needs Tiger Woods. It's great to have him back." Other rivals agree that golf needs Woods to bring back some absent spark.
"Normally I don't watch golf but I'll watch when Tiger is playing," reigning Masters champion Bubba Watson said.
"No matter if he misses the cut, no matter if he just finishes middle of the pack, it's a great thing for golf that he's back."
- 'Golf needs Tiger' -
US television ratings have sagged in the absence of Woods, even for major events.
"Every time he's in the field, the event is different," said 2011 PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley.
"That might not be the right thing to say, but it's really exciting when he's out there. We need Tiger. The whole tour needs Tiger and golf needs Tiger." Kevin Streelman, who birdied the last seven holes Sunday to win the Travelers Championship, says with Woods back, "It's a different feel." "Obviously attendance is higher, excitement around the town is greater. It's just great for golf. He's a great ambassador, a great talent and everyone likes to watch him play." Spain's Sergio Garcia expects Woods at the British Open.
"It's interesting to see how he's feeling," Garcia said. "He wants to be as ready as possible for the British Open. It's very nice to see him come back and hopefully he stays healthy."