Tiger is ready to play, and that's a good start

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Before we return to critiquing every aspect of Tiger Woods’ game, let’s remember that this comeback wasn’t guaranteed. Far from it, in fact.

There was little certainty that Woods, now 40, would be able to return after three back procedures since April 2014. This wasn’t an injury to his shoulder or knee, which would require a relatively straightforward surgery and rehabilitation. Damage to the lower back is more complex than that. One awkward swing, one false step, maybe even one weird tee grab … and he could be sidelined again. Just ask Jason Day.    

The last time Woods was seen swinging a club, he rinsed three consecutive wedge shots on a cold morning at a media-day event in June. After that, he was shut down for the rest of the season, casting further doubt about his future. Honestly, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Woods had announced at his tournament in December that, hey, he tried, but his body just wouldn’t cooperate.

And yet, here he is, finally ready to return to competition at next week’s Safeway Open in Napa, Calif.

Even that appearance was uncertain. When Woods first announced his intention to return later this year, he left himself an out, saying that he “hoped” to play in three events. Last week at the Ryder Cup, there was skepticism about whether he’d be able to tee it up – he walked gingerly and hadn't hit balls all week, because of his duties as a vice captain. Then, this week, his hometown of Jupiter, Fla., was socked by Hurricane Matthew. An ideal run-up to his first start in 14 months, this was not.

But Woods apparently has seen enough progress that he’s ready to return to competition. Ready to face the world’s best – he is now ranked No. 767, behind Federico Maccario – despite recording just one top-10 the past three years. Ready, physically, for the practice rounds and the five-hour walks and pre- and post-round range work and recovery. And ready, mentally, for the relentless criticism, about his body, his swing, his outlook.

So many questions will soon be answered:

How will his body hold up?

Will his swing look any different?

What clubs will he use?

Can he someday win again?

This comeback could be short-lived, or it might be one of the greatest final acts an athlete has ever enjoyed. That Woods is even attempting to return is surprising enough.