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What should we expect for Tiger's return

By Scott Michaux
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Tiger Woods' career has always been measured by numbers and milestones.

Youngest to do this. Fastest to do that. Most weeks at No. 1. Fourteen majors. Seventy-nine PGA Tour wins. Ten seasons with at least five wins. ... The digits are staggering.

With Woods finally returning to competitive golf for the first time in more than a year at this week's 2016-17 season-opening Safeway Open in California, the numbers that we use to define him have shifted starkly and the milestones tend to be anniversaries.

It was 20 years ago on Oct. 6 when Woods won his first professional event in Las Vegas. It will be the 20th anniversary in April of his first major win at the Masters. It's been 3 years, 2 months and 6 days since Woods' last victory at the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone; 8 years, three months, 24 days since his last major win at the 2008 U.S. Open.

It's been 875 days since he was last ranked No. 1 on May 18, 2014. It will have been 417 days since Woods last teed it up in the final round in Greensboro, N.C., en route to a 10th place finish. He was ranked 257th in the world following his last start at the Wyndham. He's currently 767th.

Only one thing has stayed constant. Through all of his ups, downs, comebacks and disappearances, Woods remains the most captivating figure in golf.

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Television ratings will spike this week for a PGA Tour event that has to compete with the middle of football season and the baseball playoffs. Ticket sales for the event have already doubled over a year ago. Every move Woods makes will be scrutinized for clues about the direction of his game and whether he's back to his former self.

Whatever numbers Woods generates on the Silverado course in Napa, Calif., aren't the important thing, however. What matters is if he holds up.

The typically impatient Woods has uncharacteristically endured a slow and deliberate recovery and rehab from a pair of back surgeries in September and October of 2015. Despite repeated rumors about his impending return at the Masters or U.S. Open or PGA, Woods held firm to his commitment to take it slowly and skip the entire tour season. Brief cameo appearances in April at Sage Valley and Houston or May at Congressional only fueled speculation but didn't deter his long-range plan.

"This time I was smart about my recovery and didn't rush it," he said.

It wasn't until Sept. 7 that Woods finally announced he was ready to return at this week's Safeway and subsequent events at the Turkish Airlines Open next month and the Hero World Challenge, Dec. 1-4 in the Bahamas.

"My rehabilitation is to the point where I'm comfortable making plans, but I still have work to do," Woods said. "Whether I can play depends on my continued progress and recovery. My hope is to have my game ready to go."

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These are not words that should inspire much expectation. "Ready to go" doesn't mean ready to contend. Despite Jesper Parnevik's prediction of a "spectacular" comeback based on some casual recent rounds together in Jupiter, Fla., we have no idea what we'll see from Woods when the strokes count in live competition.

"He's pounding it a mile and flushing everything," Parnevik said in quotes that created the usual Tiger stir. "On the range at least, his trajectory and ball flight are like the Tiger we knew 15 years ago."

This kind of analysis doesn't help. Neither do reports that Woods is expected to be paired the first two rounds with Phil Mickelson, which will only fuel the circus that always swirls around both of them. Woods not only needs to be patient, he needs patience from the rest of the world not to put pressure on him to get up to full speed too soon.

There is every indication that this is the last chance for Woods' body to be able to hold up under the strain of his game. If we push him or he pushes himself too hard, another setback might be the end of his brilliant career at the age of 40.

That should be our only concern -- his sustained health and not whether Woods can break par this week or get in the hunt in the next couple of months. We need him on that first tee in April playing for a green jacket -- not only in 2017 but for years to come.

Since 2008 as he's battled injuries as well as personal issues that have repeatedly made him unavailable to compete, golf has created new stars and gilded the resumes on old rivals like Mickelson. The game at its highest levels is healthy in the hands of the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson. It's been a compelling season of golf even without Woods.

Still, no amount of young stars can simply replace a once-in-a-lifetime figure like Tiger Woods. Golf needs him healthy and back in the regular rotation challenging a new set of peers.

Woods needs it as well. Extended time off seems to have given him a healthier perspective on his life and his place in the game. As great as it was seeing him support the U.S. Ryder Cup team as an assistant captain, it's in the fray where he needs to be.

"It was great spending time with my children, Sam and Charlie, and also working on a lot of projects including golf-course design, the upcoming 20th anniversary of my foundation and my book about the 1997 Masters," Woods said of his long leave. "But I missed competing."

And we missed him. Here's hoping this week's return is just the start of a long future in which the numbers start adding up again.

This article was written by Scott Michaux from The Augusta Chronicle, Ga. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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