By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) - With the opening PGA Tour event of 2017 just a month away, golf fans and players are bracing for the next chapter from Tiger Woods as the former world number one prepares for his first start on the U.S. circuit since August 2015.
Though Woods is unlikely to tee it up in competition until the Jan. 26-29 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where he is a seven-times former champion, he has already given a taste of what to expect with his performance in the Bahamas last week.
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Back in action after an absence of almost 16 months caused by chronic back problems, Woods produced roller-coaster form at the Hero World Challenge which he hosts to finish 15th in an elite 17-man field.
Hardly surprisingly, the 14-times major winner was rusty in certain areas of his game and made several errors in judgment over the four rounds but also showed flashes of the brilliant golf for which he was once renowned and ended the week with a tournament-high 24 birdies.
Woods was clearly delighted to be back competing with his peers and his fellow American, world number five Jordan Spieth, expressed the views of many in that Bahamas field with a positive and excited assessment of the tournament host's return to competition.
"What looks like is happening is he's being patient, he's making a return, he's confident in his game," Spieth, 23, told reporters about the 40-year-old Woods. "That's really exciting for us and for golf.
"He's a guy that can continue to have an influence on the golf course for players ... he can truly help get the numbers back up in golf."
Spieth, who won the Masters and U.S. Open in 2015, felt Woods should not be judged on the success of his comeback until at least late next year, saying any player needed a minimum of one week of competition for every two weeks away from the game to establish good rhythm.
"But what he did (in the Bahamas) showed that he's certainly up for the task and his game's there, he's ready to go," said Spieth. "Even with Tiger, every time we set expectations, he exceeds them.
"But that's sometimes not fair then to set even higher ones, so certainly I hope that he gets his time ... and I'm sure he will. He's mentally tough as anybody who's ever been in the game."
(Writing by Mark Lamport-Stokes in St. Augustine, Florida; Editing by Frank Pingue)