Bethesda, United States -Tiger Woods begins his competitive comeback from a three-month injury layoff Thursday at Congressional Country Club, testing himself and the state of his game ahead of next month's British Open.
The 14-time major winner, chasing the all-time record of 18 major titles won by Jack Nicklaus, enters the US PGA Quicken Loans National having not played since March 9 because of a pinched nerve that required back surgery on March 31.
“After a lot of therapy, I have recovered well,” Woods said in a statement Friday. “I've just started to hit full shots, but it's time to take the next step.
“I will be a bit rusty but I want to play myself back into competitive shape. Excited for the challenge ahead.”
The $6.5 million event, which benefits Woods' charity foundation, will likely serve as his only warm-up for next month's British Open at Royal Liverpool, where Woods last hoisted the Claret Jug in 2006.
Doctors have reportedly told Woods he would need time to recover between his return and his first major since the operation at Hoylake.
Woods, who missed the Masters and US Open while rehabilitating, has also won a title at the site of the year's final major, the PGA Championship in August at Valhalla, where Woods triumphed in 2000.
But Woods has not won any major title since the 2008 US Open, having been slowed by leg injuries and his infamous sex scandal.
Woods, 38, will answer questions about the state of his swing and stamina with his performance at Congressional, where he won National crowns in 2009 and 2012, and no doubt boost television ratings that have sagged in his absence.
The course figures to provide a solid test with heat and dense rough that has fanned concerns Woods might reinjure himself if not fully healed.
Six-time major winner Nick Faldo said Congressional “is almost like a boot camp” and added, “I think he must be better prepared than what he's saying.”
Some critics have said Woods could be returning too soon due to pressure from sponsors, but Woods agent Mark Steinberg denied that notion in a statement to event telecaster CBS on Saturday.
“There has been absolutely no pressure from any sponsors to return next week,” Steinberg said. “Tiger believes that competitive golf will accelerate his recovery.”
Woods struggled in early season events, missing the secondary cut at Torrey Pines, sharing 41st at Dubai, withdrawing at the Honda Classic and sharing 25th at Doral.
Australian Adam Scott dethroned Woods last month as the world number one player and Woods has since slid to fourth in the rankings.
“Everyone is just waiting for him to come back,” two-time major winner Rory McIlroy said at the US Open earlier this month.
McIlroy is well aware of what Woods has meant to the game since turning professional in 1996.
“We wouldn't be where we are without Tiger Woods in our game,” McIlroy said. “Tiger has brought so many new people into the game. He's given us on tour so many opportunities to play for bigger prize money, for more exposure... he has been the face of golf for the last 15, 20 years and golf is a better sport and a better place with Tiger Woods in it. Any tournament where Tiger Woods is a factor, he creates a big buzz.”
Golf legend Arnold Palmer warned at the Masters that Woods would have as much of a mental challenge as a physical one in trying to recapture top form.
“As Tiger continues on his personal physique and ability to work and stay healthy, I don't see any reason in the world why he will not come back and potentially do the things that he has had the desire to do,” Palmer said.
“There's a drawback about the psychological aspects of the game. He's going to have to overcome the fact that he won as much as he did and he's going to have to refresh that in his mind and his psychological approach to the game.
“If he can do that, I see no reason in the world why he can't come back and be as good a player as he ever was.”