By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) - As Tiger Woods prepares for what many pundits believe to be the final chapter of his competitive career, it is fair to say that the crystal ball detailing what lies ahead for him is totally opaque at this point.
No one, not even Woods himself, can possibly know how the former world number one will fare should he make his PGA Tour return next month, as he hopes to do, after an absence of more than a year dating back to the 2015 Wyndham Championship.
The 14-times major champion has competed in only 18 events on the U.S. circuit since the end of 2013 while being blighted by injuries and poor form, recording just one top-10 during that period along with six missed cuts and three withdrawals.
Ongoing back problems led to surgeries in September and again in October and Woods, in the twilight of his career at the age of 40, knows full well that time is not on his side as he strives to get his game back in shape.
"I still have work to do," Woods said in a statement on Wednesday after announcing his intention to make a competitive return to golf next month, beginning with the PGA Tour's Safeway Open in Napa, California.
"Whether I can play depends on my continued progress and recovery. My hope is to have my game ready to go."
Woods' long-time friend Notah Begay III, a 43-year-old Native American golfer who won four times on the PGA Tour, was wary of expecting too much too soon.
"He's been on the shelf too long to do any sort of thorough evaluation of where he's at with any element of his game," Begay said on Wednesday in his role as a Golf Channel analyst.
"The (practice) range to tournaments to competing to winning tournaments is just a very steep progression. Guys go years without winning events, guys go years and months without a top 10.
"It's a matter of one step at a time. He's putting in everything that he needs to do with his training, his rehab and his practice sessions at this point. He has been very diligent and smart in how he is going about it."
In December, Wood painted a bleak picture of his golf future while contemplating the possibility that his competitive career may already be over.
"For my 20 years out here, I achieved a lot," he said. "If that's all it entails, then I've had a pretty good run. But I'm hoping that's not it. I'm hoping I can get out here and compete against these guys. I really do miss it."
The greatest player of his generation and arguably of all time, Woods has not won a tournament anywhere since the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and his title drought in the major championships dates back to the 2008 U.S. Open.
A 79-times winner on the PGA Tour, he was world number one for a record total of 683 weeks but his form has slipped dramatically in recent years due to injuries and the mastering of a new swing while his ranking has plummeted to a mind-boggling 711th after his long spell on the sidelines.
Mental game expert Dr. Joe Parent, who helped major winners Vijay Singh and Cristie Kerr reach top spot in the world rankings, believes Woods' biggest challenge on his return will be regaining sufficient confidence in his fitness and his swing.
"There's a subtle subconscious 'wondering what will trigger the next one', and any time there's a hint of 'protecting' in a golf swing, the shots start to go sideways," Parent told Reuters.
"And recovery shots, ones that he's so famous for, are often from awkward stances making manufactured swing motions. He's gotten hurt doing those, and that could happen again."
Parent, a PGA Tour instructor who is author of the book "Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game", recalled Jack Nicklaus saying that 'peace of mind' was the most important part of his preparation for the major championships.
"After the loss of his father (Earl in 2006), Tiger was never quite the same golfer, or person," said Parent. "When Tiger first came back after the (2009) scandal, I predicted that his tee to green game wouldn't be that different, but the short game and putting require the most peace of mind and confidence.
"That's been lacking in the majors for him since the 2008 U.S. Open, and that's what I'd be looking for in his comeback.
"Does he have the focus and desire to dominate, and along with that the peace of mind and composure to get it done on and around the greens? If I had to predict, I'd say there'll be one more time when it all comes together for him in a major."
Woods always used to say he would never tee it up in a golf tournament unless he thought he was capable of winning. As he prepares to make his PGA Tour return at the Oct. 13-16 Safeway Open, that strong statement of intent may no longer be true.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)