Which tiger Woods will we see in Akron next week? That was the question swirling in the air in Killarney yesterday as the game digested the news that the former world No 1 will make his comeback at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. Graeme McDowell spoke for many when outlining his doubts.
Woods has not played competitively since The Players in May where he hobbled through only nine holes in a six-over 42 before withdrawing. He then revealed he had strained ligaments in his left knee and aggravated a strain to his Achilles at the Masters. He missed the US Open and Open and vowed not to return until he was 100 per cent healthy.
Many surmised from that statement he would miss the entire year and will be surprised to see him return so soon, particularly as he admits he has only started hitting balls again. Speaking at the Irish Open, McDowell neatly summed up the concerns.
"He limped off the course last time," said the Ulsterman. "There's one thing hitting balls on the range, it's another putting your body under tournament circumstances. We hit it 15 per cent harder in tournament play. You're putting your knee under more stress. We will see – I'm sure he knows better than any of us the state of his injuries. It's a big boost to have him back."
Woods will re-emerge ranked 28th in the world and winless in 21 months. And despite having won seven times at the Ohio course the portents are not good for the 35-year-old. "Firestone has some happy memories for him – but not last year," said McDowell. Indeed, 12 months ago he finished on 18-over with just two players below him in the 80-man field. Add that nightmare to his coach's revelation that, after an 11-week break, they only began working again on the range yesterday and the fact bookmakers make him odds-on to finish outside the top 10 is all too understandable.
Darren Clarke, however, would put nothing past his friend. "It would be a very brave man who would write off Tiger Woods," said the freshly-minted Open champion. Already there is speculation the organisers will pair Clarke and Woods together in a sentimental move, although the journalists may wish to see him alongside his heir apparent Rory McIlroy or even Adam Scott, for whom Steve Williams, the disgruntled caddie he has recently sacked, now works. "I'm delighted to be there and will play wherever they put me," said Clarke. "It's great he's coming back to play again. He's been a very good friend for a long time."
The Ulsterman feels particular affection for Woods at the moment because of the texts he received on the Saturday and Sunday at Sandwich. "They were very helpful," said Clarke. He refused to reveal their content but sources explained how Woods sent detailed tips on how to cope with the mental side of leading a major. This shows how close they have become since first meeting at the 1996 Open at Lytham when Woods was still an amateur.
"He's been the world's best player for a very, very long time, and, you know, despite all of the stuff that's happened to him, we still remain good friends," said Clarke. "The game of golf is a better place with him playing."
The Akron organisers will no doubt agree, as, of course, will the USPGA. "We were all aware that if we did not see him in Atlanta [for the USPGA] then we might not see him again this year," said McDowell. While the major successes of McIlroy and Clarke more than filled the gap left by his absence for European fans, in America they have been desperate for his return. The focus next week will inevitably be intense and some of it will fall on Bryon Bell, who is caddieing for Woods. Bell has known Woods since their schooldays and is the chief executive of his course design company.
Bell has actually caddied for Woods on three previous occasions; one of which Woods won and two of which he finished runner-up. But he is far better known as the man named by Rachel Uchitel and at least one other of Woods's mistresses as the "facilitator" in his clandestine affairs. The media scrum around Bell might rival Woods's.
The appointment is a curious move on Tiger's behalf, but then so much of this stunning downfall of an icon continues to baffle. At a press conference four weeks ago Woods insisted he would not rush to reappear, but now with just a few days' practice he will tee it up, first against the world's top 50 and then in a major, against the world's top 100. The Woods of old would have been deemed eminently capable of rising to such a challenge. But with the new Woods, nobody can be sure.