Questions surround Tiger's return to PGA Tour

February, 12, 2009
02/12/09
12:01
PM ET
Now that we've learned Tiger Woods will make his 2009 debut at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, let us move on to less important matters, such as the meaning of life and which religion is truly the right one.

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Tiger Woods Get all the latest news about the world's No. 1 golfer as he works his way back from reconstructive knee surgery. Tiger Tracker

Actually, those issues can wait. After all, there's still plenty to discuss when it comes to Tiger's return -- queries about his swing, his health, his schedule, his goals.

Until Woods tees it up for the first time Feb. 25, we won't have many answers, but here are the top 10 questions that inquiring minds want to know.

1. Can he win right away?
The truth is, most PGA Tour mortals might have returned from the injury sooner than Woods did in hopes of getting some tournament rounds under their belts while easing back into competition. Not Tiger. He often had maintained that he never has teed it up in an event at which his one and only goal wasn't winning the title, and he's already on record as stating that this goal remains true for his first event back in '09.

Think about it: Millions of eyes will be fixated on his every move when he returns. You really think he wants to bow out in the second round of the Accenture Match Play Championship or finish T-23 at Doral? It doesn't necessarily mean he's going to win, of course, but it does mean there's a little extra motivation for Woods, which has proved to be a formidable proposition in the past.

2. What are his realistic goals for 2009?
Win, win and win. Tiger is the kind of competitor who could triumph in 14 of 15 starts and still lose sleep over the one that got away. That said, it's no secret that he prioritizes the four major championships over every other tourney. Four victories shy of Jack Nicklaus' all-time record of 18 major wins, expect Woods to have renewed desire toward not only matching and breaking that mark but putting it further out of reach for the next generation of great players, too.

Although Woods would love to kick things off with a W in his return to competitive golf, you and I both know he'd trade a few lackluster performances to kick things off if it means his game is peaking on April 9, when the first round of the Masters will take place at Augusta National.

3. How much will he be able to play?
Let's face it: Woods isn't exactly one of the PGA Tour's week-in, week-out grinders who tallies more than 30 starts in a season. Even if he had started the year fully healthy, there's a good chance his total number wouldn't have reached more than 18 official events or so. Looking at the schedule, there are likely only three instances when Tiger wouldn't have at least one off week in between appearances; if all goes according to plan, we should assume he'll play the Wachovia Championship and Players Championship in back-to-back weeks in early May, then won't see consecutive tourneys again until August at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and PGA Championship, plus one month later at the Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship.

Potential starts at the Buick Open and/or The Barclays would mean competing in three straight events, but Woods has skipped each of those in the past, so neither is a given on his schedule. It's all conjecture for now, but unless he suffers a setback with the injury, expect his schedule to look nearly identical to that of previous years, save for the first few events (Buick Invitational, Dubai Desert Classic) already missed.

4. How much will he be able to practice?
Although Vijay Singh is noted for his role as the PGA Tour's biggest range rat, Woods isn't exactly Bruce Lietzke when it comes to working on his game. According to Tiger, though, those vaunted range sessions are currently more about quality over quantity.

"I did some work with Hank Haney for a few days last week and it's all good," Woods wrote on his Web site recently. "I'm full-bore with my practice sessions and have no restrictions; it's just a matter of getting my golf endurance up. I don't have my golf stamina back yet."

This will take time, of course, but if there's one thing we've learned about Woods over the years, it's that he's not averse to a little hard work. From running to lifting weights to hitting full shots to working on the short game, Tiger will continue to prepare himself as he has in the past, in an attempt to get that endurance and stamina that he speaks of back to its previous form.

5. How will his swing be affected?
From the rumors and murmurs, I've heard Tiger's short game evolved from ethereal to otherworldly in recent months. Hey, what else is he gonna work on when he can't take full swings? For those of us who haven't been hanging out on the range at Isleworth, we can only guess as to what his swing looks like right now.

When I asked Woods about the subject in October, he said, "I've been trying to make swing changes for years. … You're always making swing changes. It is what it is. That's golf. You're always tinkering."

The allusion led me to believe that such changes would take place, yet when he posted an update to his personal Web site recently, Tiger stated, "Many people have asked me if my swing has changed since the surgery, and the answer is no. I'm doing all the things I've been trying to do for a long time, but I can actually hit into my left leg without my bones moving."

My best guess is that an experienced instructor with a keen sense of Woods' swing will be able to note contrasts between the movement displayed last year and in his return but that it will appear very much the same to the untrained eye.

6. Will the surgically repaired knee still hurt?
From everything Woods has said, he feels no pain in the knee -- and we should have no reason not to believe him. From my own personal experience, I saw him coolly glide down a dew-soaked hill while hopping over a "CAUTION: SLIPPERY" sign and never think twice about it. And that was four months ago. I think it's safe to assume his comfort level has only grown since that time, so don't expect any apprehension on his part.

Oh, and now is probably a good time to reiterate a point Tiger has been making for months: He competed in the U.S. Open while enduring intense pain throughout the week. Whether the knee is 95 percent healthy or only 80 percent when he next tees it up, it will still feel a whole lot better than it did at Torrey Pines.

Basically, if he won that tournament with that injury, he can win anyplace, anytime. Scary thought for the other guys.

7. Will he be able to hold on to the No. 1 ranking?
After winning last year's U.S. Open, Tiger had accumulated 21.54 average points for his Official World Golf Ranking status, which doesn't mean squat until you compare it with the tally of the next-closest player, Phil Mickelson, who at the time owned a 10.21 -- less than half of Woods' total. In the eight months since he last teed it up, Tiger has yet to lose grasp of the top spot, though his margin predictably has slipped; his 9.90 points leads No. 2-ranked Sergio Garcia by a mere 2.05.

Unless Garcia or another close competitor makes a furious rally before Woods' return, he'll still hold the No. 1 ranking when he first tees it up. Can he be caught from behind? Well, sure, but it's akin to giving Usain Bolt a 10-meter head start in the 100-meter dash.

8. What if he doesn't compete in 15 events?
One dirty little secret the PGA Tour doesn't want you to know is that for already-exempt players, the 15-event minimum is more of a mythical figure than a mandatory total. And that goes extra for Woods, who is exempt in about a billion different ways from now until the end of time.

That's only a slight exaggeration. Because he owns more than 20 career PGA Tour victories (45 more, to be exact), Woods' lifetime membership will kick in in his 15th season -- which just happens to be 2010. And know this: If you now feel much, much older knowing Tiger has been around so long, you're hardly alone.

9. How will baby No. 2 affect his game?
Before Tiger's 2004 marriage to the former Elin Nordegren, there were some who believed such a prospect would hinder his assault on the record books -- Earl Woods included.

"Let's face it, a wife can sometimes be a distraction to a good game of golf," Tiger's dad once said. "Case in point: 'All you do is practice. Why don't you stay home here and have some quality time with me?' He doesn't need that. … The level of competition that he's at, a little problem like that could destroy him."

Instead, he followed a one-win season in 2004 with six victories, including two majors, the next year.

Yet when Sam Alexis was born just after the 2007 U.S. Open, the naysayers were again out in full force, believing that fatherhood could rob Woods of his intense desire while stealing away from practice time, too. Uh, not so much.

After missing just one scheduled start, Tiger returned to win four of seven events that season, including two majors and the inaugural FedEx Cup playoffs. After the first of those wins (at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational), he was asked whether his thoughts ever turned toward his family on the course.

"No," he claimed. "Not when I'm out there playing."

So, even with the birth of Charlie Axel on Feb. 8, don't expect to see a less focused Woods anytime soon.

10. How badly does the PGA Tour need him?
It's been a strong start to the 2009 campaign with former major champions (Geoff Ogilvy, Zach Johnson), fan favorites (Kenny Perry and Pat Perez) and up-and-comers (Nick Watney and Dustin Johnson) all finding themselves in the figurative winner's circle so far. That's all well and good for the die-hard supporters, but this is a sport that relies on star power to draw the casual fans, and no one boasts a higher Q rating than Woods.

For more than a decade, there has been a line drawn in the PGA Tour schedule: Those events that draw Woods to the field are elevated to the upper class, and all others are middle class or below. This is about more than tickets and TV ratings, though. In the current economic crisis, it has become more difficult than ever to sell sponsors on the idea of putting money toward a golf tournament. That idea sounds a lot more feasible, however, when the world's most recognizable athlete is involved.

Tiger might not be bigger than the game, but does the PGA Tour need him more than he needs the PGA Tour right now? It's hard to argue with such a notion.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.

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