The eyes of the golf world will be focused on Napa, Calif., this week to see whether a player currently ranked 767th internationally still has some thrill left in his game.
Tiger Woods is his name, and for now, that's all that matters. Forget the ranking. In golf, Woods remains the Messiah of buzz, even if he hasn't worked any miracles lately. Despite the odds against him, there are many who believe he still can.
But when Woods tees it up for real at the Safeway Open on Thursday at Silverado Resort and Spa — he'll warm up with a splashy pro-am round alongside the Warriors' Stephen Curry on Wednesday — it will be his first competitive test in more than a year, 418 days to be exact, when he finished tied for 10th at the 2015 Wyndham Championship. That's a lot of rust to chip off.
Despite 79 career victories that includes 14 wins in majors, Tiger hasn't won any golf tournaments since 2013. He hasn't won a major tournament since the 2008 U.S. Open — eight years! Meanwhile, he's had three back operations in 20 months to go along with a handful of surgeries he's had on his knees in years prior.
One more thing: Woods has been a 40-year-old for nearly 10 months now, and 40 is generally the demarcation line for athletes in all sports, even the great ones, to start experiencing a wicked fade. It can extend a little longer for some golfers — Phil Mickelson, also entered this week, is a one shining example — but not all.
That's the great mystery and allure of Woods venturing to Napa, Calif., and the many fans and media who will follow him there to watch. Will it be the launch pad to another comeback for one of the great athletes of our time? Or will it be another final footnote to a transcendent career gone horribly bad since 2013, when he won five tournaments, flirted with victory in a couple of majors, re-ascended to No. 1 in the world and was named PGA Tour Player of the Year for the 11th time.
He has a steep mountain to climb. But one of those solidly in Woods' corner is the legendary Gary Player, among many who have voiced their support for a successful Tiger return in recent days, on Twitter and elsewhere.
"There will be haters, doubters, non-believers," Player said in a tweet. "And then there will be you, proving them wrong."
No question about it, golf yearns for it to happen. Tiger, by his mere presence, elevates the sport to a major position on the map. He stirs uncanny interest, and in the process, makes money for everybody, not just himself.
But yes, there are doubters and non-believers, and maybe a few haters as well. When Golf.com conducted an unscientific poll a few days ago on how Woods might fare in Napa, 40 percent of respondents said he would miss the cut. Only 12 percent said he would be in contention, while 13 percent predicted victory.
The fact is, no one really knows. Predictably, Woods has guarded the rehabilitation of his body and his game like state secrets. Few have seen him play and his personal updates have been cautious and cryptic. But when it comes to Tiger, it only takes one morsel of optimism to get people excited, and that was provided by Jesper Parnevik, the one-time Swedish standout, who has seen Woods play recently at the Medalist, the club where both are members in Florida.
"We talk and have played nine holes together," Parnevik told Golf Digest. "By the way, he's been hitting a lot of balls, and he's hitting it great. He's pounding it a mile and flushing everything. On the range, at least, his trajectory and ball flight are like the Tiger we knew 15 years ago. Comebacks are never a sure thing, but something tells me his might be spectacular."
NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller, also a Silverado Resort and Spa partner, was priming the pump as far back as a month ago when Woods first revealed on his website that he hoped to play in Napa, Calif.
"There's no doubt 40 is pretty young," Miller said in a Golf Channel interview. "His body is not worn out. He's had his humps and bumps. If he's going to come back and play some kind of a schedule, you cannot count Tiger Woods out. Talent always comes to the surface if you give it a chance.
"They say a great fighter, a boxer, always has at least one more great fight in him, and I think he has more than one great fight. I really pick him to win six or eight tournaments in the second career, at least. That's my feeling."
Assessments like that are enough to get the world's golfing press to come running. Five times as many media members are expected to turn out at the Safeway Open compared with last year's Frys.com Open finale, which boasted some pretty big names in Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose. Ticket sales have doubled in anticipation of Woods playing, and that was before he even made a firm commitment on Friday.
Add to that the fact that Woods will be paired with Mickelson the first two rounds, as well as Curry during his pro-am practice round, you have a full-fledged Tiger extravaganza, just like the old days.
All that's left to see is whether Woods can even approach the majesty of his own old days. But it's Tiger — always worth a look.
This article was written by By Carl Steward from Mercury News and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.