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Woods begins latest comeback with no guarantees

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Here we go again.

With a quick blog post and a tweet launched into the social media ether, Tiger Woods again lit a flame to the biggest tinderbox in golf.

Will his oft-injured back hold up in the latest iteration of his return to competition, now set for the Hero World Challenge a month from now? Can he improve upon last year’s result, where he led the field in birdies but only beat two players across 72 holes? Is there still time to get a bet down in Vegas that he’ll slip on a fifth green jacket in April?

After months of sparse updates and rudderless speculation, it’s all again on the table. Woods will step back inside the ropes a few weeks before his 42nd birthday, with a rebuilt body and a revamped mindset.

“I’m excited to return to competitive golf at the Hero World Challenge,” he said Monday in a release. “Albany is the perfect setting and it will be great to join this outstanding field.”

But the question remains: will this time be any different than the last?

Keep in mind, this entire string of events, the sheer idea of Woods hitting a competitive shot before 2018, seemed rather preposterous only a month ago. It was at the Presidents Cup that Woods entertained the notion that he might never play competitive golf again, much to the surprise of the media gathered in the shadow of Lady Liberty.

“I don’t know what my future holds for me,” Woods said on Sept. 27. “As I’ve told you guys, I’m hitting 60-yard shots.”

My, how things can escalate. In the span of a few short weeks, Woods went from hitting pitches to full shots on the range to drivers on the course and his patented stinger.

A brimming arsenal was showcased – and quickly, at that – leading many to suddenly realize that the Hero, which had purposefully held back two open spots when announcing the majority of its 18-player field, was still in play.

Granted, this rapid renaissance flies in the face of Woods’ other recent comments about easing back into things. That was also the goal a year ago, when he ended a 15-month hiatus in his Bahamian alcove after patiently biding his time, only to see a well-crafted comeback attempt crumble after only seven rounds.

“I don’t know what 100 percent means after eight surgeries, but I’ll try and get as close as I can to that number,” Woods said last month. “But as I said, we just take it one step at a time. It’s a process, and I’m in no hurry.”

Perhaps the calendar sped things along, given that his next plausible playing opportunity wouldn't be until late January. Or maybe Woods was simply overcome with giddiness after cranking out a handful of swings without flinching in pain for the first time in months, if not years.

Don’t discount the allure of making his much-anticipated return in the highly-controlled environment of Albany. With an 18-man field, unofficial stakes, sparse crowds, limited media and a forgiving course with which he’s familiar, there are plenty of reasons to circle this particular week, even if he seems to be progressing ahead of any discernible schedule.

To his credit, Woods appears to have used his time away from the game to turn over a new, self-deprecating leaf. He grinned his way around Liberty National as an assistant captain and displayed a level of self-awareness with his “return of the stinger” tweet last week that would have seemed out of place a decade ago.

Even Monday’s announcement included a reference to the “committee of 1” which granted Woods, the tournament host, an exemption specifically reserved for the tournament host.

The thought of a largely healthy Woods returning to action is tantalizing enough, but for that same player to be willing to have a little fun while trying to keep up with players half his age? The internet has combusted over less.

Granted, there are still far more questions than answers as to the state of Woods’ game. His lumbar fusion surgery in April, the fourth procedure in recent years aimed at healing his ailing lower back, was by all accounts his most invasive surgery to date. Its impact on his flexibility and swing arc over the course of 18 holes, let alone 72, remain to be seen.

And by Woods’ own account, he wasn’t doing anything “golf-related” until a few weeks ago, and only earlier this month did he receive clearance from his surgeon to resume full golf activities. The situation is a far cry from last year, when he slowly but surely ramped his game back into playing shape only to find that it was decidedly rough around the edges.

But if nothing else, Woods’ comments last month served the purpose of flattening any lingering expectations. Each accurate drive, flushed iron and holed birdie putt from here on out will feel like a bonus given the state of Woods’ game, or lack thereof, for much of the year.

At this point, Woods’ much-heralded return doesn’t extend beyond a few low-key rounds along the Bahamian coast. After the misfire that followed last year’s appearance, there are no certainties about how his body will respond at Albany, or in the weeks that follow.

Four years removed from his last healthy season, nine months since limping away from Dubai and again tasked with rehabbing a surgically-repaired body, Woods won’t begin this latest comeback equipped with any guarantees.

But his latest announcement shows that he’s still willing to give it another shot.