- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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AKRON, Ohio -- A year ago everything looked so promising for Tiger Woods. He won his fifth tournament of 2013 by seven strokes, including a second-round 61, and firmly entrenched himself as the No. 1-ranked player of the year.
But little has gone right since on the course for Woods.
He returns to one of his favorite venues, Firestone Country Club, to defend his WGC-Bridgestone Invitational title with numerous questions about his game and his ability to compete after playing just six competitive rounds following March 31 back surgery. Asked what he needs to improve, Woods said "everything.''
"Everything needed to get a little bit better,'' Woods said prior to a practice round at Firestone on Wednesday. "Just got to get more efficient at what I'm doing.
"This is only my third tournament back from a back surgery. So that's something that I've had to try and keep in mind because I've been in these situations before with my previous surgeries. It takes a little bit of time.''
The problem for Woods is he is running out of time -- at least as it relates to the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup playoffs and the Ryder Cup.
Woods needs strong finishes the next two weeks to have any chance of qualifying for the FedEx Cup playoffs that begin at the Barclays in three weeks. A victory would take care of it, but short of that he is likely in need of top-3 finishes at minimum to earn enough points to move from 215th into the top 125. If he got close enough, Woods would have the option of adding the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, North Carolina, the last regular-season event prior to the playoffs.
Then there is the Ryder Cup, which begins Sept. 26 in Scotland.
Woods is 70th in the points standings, and in need of an at-large pick from U.S. captain Tom Watson, who has said often that he wants Woods on the team if "he is healthy and playing well.'' Last week, Jack Nicklaus said you would be "out of your mind'' not to pick Woods if he is healthy and wants to be there.
Woods wants to be there. And he says his health is no longer an issue, that he continues to feel stronger and get better.
The first balls won't be struck at Gleneagles for 58 days. But he wouldn't speculate as to how he might try to sell himself to Watson.
"I would like to win these two events and not have to worry about anything,'' he said. "That's the plan. That's the mindset. That's the focus.
"We'll see how it falls after these few weeks. Other than that, I'm so far out of it right now that I need to play well to get myself there where I can get myself into the playoffs and ultimately, hopefully, play all four weeks.''
After winning a year ago for the eighth time in his career at Firestone and for the 79th time on the PGA Tour, Woods showed the first signs of back issues the following week at the PGA Championship, where he tied for 40th -- his worst 72-hole finish in a major until he was 69th two weeks ago at the Open Championship.
Woods tied for second at the Barclays (where back spasms felled him during the final round), was third at a European Tour event in Turkey and lost in a playoff to Zach Johnson at the World Challenge, his annual fundraising event for the Tiger Woods Foundation. It was the last time Woods played well, as 2014 has -- so far -- been a lost year.
His best finish was a tie for 25th at Doral, his last tournament prior to surgery. Since returning, he missed the cut at the Quicken Loans National and was 69th at Royal Liverpool, where he struggled with most aspects of his game.
In the six rounds he has played, Woods has broken par just once. And he seemed to suggest Wednesday -- while also talking about the goal being to win -- that a different level of patience has been required this time compared to other injuries.
"There's no comparison between a knee and a back,'' said Woods, who missed the second half of 2008 following reconstructive ACL surgery. "The knee is so much easier to deal with and rehab from than coming back from a back. I've had Achilles injuries, obviously knee surgeries, but this thing is just way different. Its way more debilitating than I thought.
"The people that I've talked to that have had the same procedure, how long it takes them to come back. And most of the people I talked to who have had the procedure have no idea how I'm even back here playing. They just can't understand that.''
Woods said it was a high point even to be playing when he returned at Congressional and then lamented a number of course management issues at the Open that he expects to improve. Now he's back at a familiar place, where he has won eight times in 15 tries.
But that is no guarantee.
Four years ago, in the midst of a coaching transition, Woods finished next to last in the no-cut field. In 2011, this was his first event back following four months away due to knee and Achilles injuries, and he tied for 37th.
"It's one of those golf courses where I've always felt comfortable,'' he said.
Woods is paired with U.S. Open champion Martin Kaymer for the first two rounds. They tee off at 2:20 p.m. ET on Thursday and 10:30 a.m. on Friday.
Open Championship winner Rory McIlroy is playing with Matt Kuchar at 10:40 a.m. ET Thursday, following the group of Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia at 10:30 a.m. Masters champion Bubba Watson is with No. 1-ranked Adam Scott at 2:10 p.m.
The 76-player field features all but Dustin Johnson, who withdrew for personal reasons, among the top 50 players in the world
Tiger Woods is hoping a return to Firestone, a course where he's fared well in the past, can spark a game that has struggled in 2014.