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Thursday, July 28, 2011
Updated: August 2, 1:07 PM ET
Tiger Woods set to return in Akron

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

The return of Tiger Woods has been highly anticipated, an almost weekly waiting game of will he or won't he. The expectations? Not so much.

If we have learned anything about Woods over the years, it is that he never shows up at a tournament thinking about anything less than victory.

And yet at this point in the process, could anything seem further away?

Tiger Woods and Steve Williams
When Tiger Woods tees it up at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, he'll do so without caddie Steve Williams by his side. Woods reportedly will have childhood friend Bryon Bell on his bag in Akron next week.

You always doubt Woods at your own risk, but this is no time to be talking big. For Woods, it is about taking tiny steps, both literally and figuratively, as he gets back on his feet after an injury hiatus that nobody ever dreamed would last this long.

Woods announced on Thursday via Twitter and his website that he will return to competitive golf next week at Firestone Country Club for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, site of seven triumphs and one very poor performance.

Before last year's tournament, Woods had never finished worse than fourth at Firestone; then he played his worst 72-hole tournament as a pro, beating only one player and shooting 18 over par.

Viewed as the low point of his comeback from an off-the-course scandal that led to a divorce, Woods the very next week began working with instructor Sean Foley at the PGA Championship, the idea being to put the pieces of his swing back together.

Although there were varying signs of progress, there were no victories, and some lackluster performances through the early part of this year, which never saw him contend -- until the final-round of the Masters.

It was at Augusta National in April where Woods shot a front-nine 31 to tie for the lead before running out of magic on the back nine and eventually finishing four strokes back of winner Charl Schwartzel in a tie for fourth.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, a day earlier Woods said he tweaked his left knee and Achilles while attempting to hit a shot from pine straw on the 17th hole. It didn't affect him during the final round, but two weeks after the tournament, Woods announced that the injuries were serious enough to cause him to miss the Wells Fargo Championship.

He lasted just nine holes the next week at the Players Championship, and we've been awaiting his return ever since, everyone holding their breath as tournaments he would normally play approached.

Woods skipped the Memorial and then the U.S. Open and then the AT&T National and then the British Open. More than two months have gone by since he withdrew from the Players with injuries that were first reported to be minor. He has not completed a tournament in nearly four months.

In his last public comments, which came at the AT&T National on June 28, Woods said he was not going to rush his recovery.

"I'm being smarter this time," Woods said. "All the years of playing when my knee wasn't very good and playing through it, you know, unfortunately I broke my leg and still played [during the 2008 U.S. Open]. That's not exactly smart. I'm going to do it differently this time. I am going to come back when I'm 100 percent ready, which is different for me."

And apparently he meant it. Woods agent, Mark Steinberg, said in an email Thursday night that "he has been cleared to play and is looking forward to getting back next week at Firestone."

Foley said in a text message that the two have yet to work together but they would meet again on Friday.

What's unclear is how much Woods has worked on his game on his own. Did he practice chipping and putting while awaiting clearance to hit full shots? Has he been working on his game solo?

When he showed up at the Players Championship in May, Woods said he had only begun practicing on that Monday. He played two nine-hole practice rounds in preparation, then clearly looked out of sorts in a nine-hole 42 that saw him aggravate his injuries.

More time sitting on the couch ensued, forcing neglect of the golf swing. Meanwhile, Woods has dropped in the world rankings to 21st, the lowest he has been since early 1997 -- before he won the first of his 14 major championships.

So he's not played, hardly practiced, fired his longtime caddie, Steve Williams, and will return at Firestone knowing that at the very least he's got a four-round tournament to work on his game -- the WGC event has no cut.

Presumably Woods would tee it up the following week at Atlanta Athletic Club in the PGA Championship, a tournament he has won four times. If not, his ability to play any more meaningful golf on the PGA Tour this year would be in doubt because he is 133rd in FedEx Cup points and needs to be among the top 125 to have a spot in the playoffs at the end of next month.

And yet, all of that is a lot to digest for a guy who hasn't hit a meaningful shot in months and hardly knew where it was going when he did.

Tiger is back, but there is a long journey to getting back to being Tiger.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.