By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) - No one, and in all likelihood not even Tiger Woods himself, can know how the former world number one will fare as he makes his much anticipated PGA Tour return at this week's Safeway Open in Napa, California.
After spending over a year on the sidelines while retooling his game following his recovery from back surgeries, Woods will be testing himself under the harsh glare of competition in three tournaments before the year-end.
The 14-times major champion has not played on the PGA Tour since August 2015, having undergone surgeries in September and again in October of that year due to ongoing back problems.
Now in the twilight of his career at the age of 40, Woods knows full well that time is not on his side as he strives to get his game back into competitive shape.
"It was difficult missing tournaments that are important to me, but this time I was smart about my recovery and didn't rush it," Woods said after announcing his plans to compete in Napa. "I still have work to do.”
The greatest player of his generation and arguably of all time, Woods has not won a tournament anywhere since 2013 and his title drought in the major championships dates back to 2008.
NBC commentator Johnny Miller, a double major champion who is tournament host of the Safeway Open, believes the Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa is an ideal venue for Woods.
"There is nothing funky about it," Miller said on Golf Channel. "It's a very straightforward course, sort of his kind of course. A lot like Torrey Pines.
Miller, who had to "get back to basics" after a lengthy slump during his playing career, advised Woods to keep it simple before adding: "Forget maybe trying to kill the ball off the tee. If he can put it in play and just let his irons do the talking."
Mental game expert Dr. Joe Parent, who Vijay Singh and Cristie Kerr reach top spot in the world rankings, believes Woods' biggest challenge will be regaining sufficient confidence in his fitness and his swing.
"The challenge is coming back from so many injuries and surgeries," Parent told Reuters. "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."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)