The Masters 2014: This time, Tiger Woods will find it harder to reach first at Augusta

With the first major of the season three weeks away, will the world No 1's back be up to the challenge?

The first major of the season, the Masters, tees off three weeks on Thursday. After the palliative treatment applied a year ago to keep Tiger Woods in the tournament perhaps a call to Fred Ridley, chairman of the competition committee, is in order to see if he has any advice on how best to escape the perils of the bad back that has forced Tiger's withdrawal at Bay Hill this week.

The lower lumbar region is the rules conundrum of the medical profession. No one really knows how it works. Even the experts muddle along in a fug of guesswork and inadequate funding. Woods could be right as rain tomorrow; similarly he could be labouring for a month waiting for the vertebrae and ligaments to drop in the right place.

Woods' back is particularly mystifying. It first had him in trouble at the Barclays during the Fed-Ex Cup last September and flared again three weeks ago at the Honda Classic, where, after shooting a 65 on the Saturday, he completed only 13 holes the following day and was plenty over par when he called it quits.

Cynics among us wondered if the pain was in his torso or his scorecard. Remarkably, he declared himself fit to defend his title at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral just four days later, which must have been a struggle getting that one past his daughter Sam, who was apparently more than perplexed by events at PGA National, escorting her father off the 13th green.

Woods again shot the lights out of Saturday, his round of 66 described as his most complete of the year and taking him within three of the lead. The next day he was a comparative cripple again, at one hole requiring help from his playing partner's caddie to retrieve his ball from the cup. He stayed the course but tumbled down the leader board with a score of 78.

In the intervening 10 days Woods reports no improvement in the condition, which is an obvious worry with the Masters so close. Not only for him but also for the organisers and television companies who benefit so much from his presence.

It is fair to assume that Woods is in trouble. He loves this week's Orlando course, the tournament, too, hosted as it is by Arnold Palmer. And he is the defending champion. He has entered only four strokeplay events this year, completing two, having missed the Saturday cut at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines as well as the final day at Palm Beach Gardens.

But if there is one player who can summon the competitive spirit after an absence it is Woods. You might recall how between striking the fire hydrant in November 2009 and teeing off at the Masters in 2010, Woods did not complete one competitive round. In the immediate aftermath of his marital crisis Woods said he did not know when he would return to golf. His mea culpa speech at the PGA Tour headquarters in February 2010 served as a coming out party as well as public flagellation, at least raising the prospect of a dramatic return.

And so it came to pass. Woods duly announced that he would compete at Augusta. The build-up could not have been more mortifying with the great and the good taking it in turns to admonish Woods over his proclivities and deportment. Woods' pre-tournament press conference was a toe curler of shame appeasement.

How he made it to the first tee in sackcloth and ashes is anyone's guess. But make it he did. Four days later only three players had shot a better total. He has won the Green Jacket four times but arguably had never played better, given the circumstances.

This is different because, as far as we know, Woods cannot lay his hands on a club in a meaningful way, save for rudimentary chipping and putting. Woods famously won his last major title, the 2008 US Open, on one leg. As long as he can tie his shoelaces he will start. But he is unlikely to start favourite.

His best finish this season is 24th, posted last time out at Doral. He has had two decent rounds in four events. The consistency he showed last year, winning three times before Augusta, has just not been there.

He was joint leader when his ball bounced into Rae's Creek off the pin at the 15th during the second round a year ago. That 15th major might already be his had he not endured the drama of the wrong drop and the crafty shift of blame from player to organisers that kept him controversially in the contest. Right now it seems further away than ever.