NEW YORK • Last Sunday's charity golf exhibition with Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson was a nice opening act, but the sport's headliner returns this weekend.
On Sunday, Tiger Woods will play for the first time in three months, ending his longest lay-off since recovering from spinal fusion surgery in 2017.
The 15-time Major winner and Phil Mickelson will reprise their match-play showdown of 2018, this time to benefit coronavirus relief efforts and in pairings with former National Football League rivals Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
The event will be a meaningful opportunity to assess the fitness of not just Woods' golf game but also his back, which after four operations is an anatomical wild card.
The competitive golf world's last glimpse of the 44-year-old was in mid-February, when he was stiff and uncomfortable as he shot an ignominious 11-over par total of 295 in the final two rounds of the Genesis Invitational to finish last among the 68 golfers who made the cut.
It appeared to be a minor setback at the time. But roughly a month later, citing trouble with his cranky back, he withdrew from a series of high-profile March tournaments, including the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Players Championship.
When the PGA Tour was suspended soon afterwards, with the Masters postponed the same day because of the coronavirus pandemic, Woods, the defending champion at Augusta, was idled like thousands of other pro athletes around the globe.
But the former world No. 1, unlike most of his brethren, has a shrinking window to add to his celebrated sporting legacy.
He is tied with Sam Snead for the most career Tour victories with 82, and his 15 Majors are three behind Jack Nicklaus' record.
It is not just Woods' age that will pose a challenge going forward; there are questions about how long his back can hold out.
"If he were to chase the record books, it would need to occur pretty soon," Dr Wellington Hsu, an orthopaedic surgeon at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital, who has examined athletes after spinal fusion operations, said.
"It's more likely he would have success now rather than three, four or five years down the road. At least based on medical science."
HARDLY THE SAME THING
As golfers, we've been playing a lot - guys playing matches down here. But it's still not playing for trophies. It's just different. We miss competing.
TIGER WOODS, on life without competitive golf following the PGA Tour's suspension, with play not resuming till June 11 at the earliest.
Dr Hsu, however, added that no professional golfer had returned to competition after the kind of fusion surgery performed on Woods.
"He's already proven the experts wrong," he said.
"Some people have an incredible amount of reserve in every other part of their body, or their muscles are stronger and can support a significantly degenerated spine to perform at a high level."
In a video conference call with reporters this month to promote Sunday's charity event, which will team Woods and Manning against Mickelson and Brady, Woods appeared fit and said he was swinging a golf club freely again.
Last month, in an interview with GolfTV, he insisted the condition of his back had improved greatly since February, insisting the difference was "night and day".
While he will not get to defend his Masters title until November and while there will be at least one fewer Major this year because of the cancellation of the British Open, his recent break from tournament play may be beneficial.
"The time off is terrific," said Dr Hsu, noting that Woods most likely has significant arthritis in his back. "Time off can only help his symptoms and his pain."
But if the Tour resumes on June 11 at the Charles Schwab Challenge in Texas as planned, a compacted schedule with almost weekly tournaments would theoretically follow until almost November.
Last season, on average, Woods took about 2 1/2 weeks off between tournament appearances.
The first step back is Sunday's match at the Medalist Golf Club, his "home" course in Hobe Sound, Florida.
"As golfers, we've been playing a lot - guys playing matches down here," he said in the video conference call.
"But it's still not playing for trophies. It's just different. We miss competing."