April 3 (Reuters) - Tiger Woods’ decision to return to competition at next week’s Masters after a two-month break is unquestionably a bold one, but it could very well end up being foolhardy.
The former world number one has been woefully out of form in his only two tournament appearances this year and, though he feels he is now ready to compete again, he will face a daunting test on the fast, sloping greens at Augusta National.
Yes, Woods is a four-times champion at the Masters and he knows the famed par-72 course as well as anyone else in the field, so he will certainly enjoy a huge comfort factor on his return to the year’s opening major.
On the downside, though, his short game has been pathetic in his last two competitive starts, prompting several pundits to say he is suffering from the chipping ‘yips’.
If Woods does indeed have the yips, which is an involuntary movement of the muscles, then Augusta National would be one of the most challenging venues for him to make a PGA Tour comeback.
In January, Woods played in only his second event in five months -- at the Phoenix Open -- after enduring back problems for much of last year.
What followed shocked the golfing world as a player once revered for his sublime short game struggled badly with his chipping, hitting shots fat or thin while occasionally resorting to a putter or a bump-and-run approach instead.
He ended up posting the highest score of his professional career, an 11-over-par 82, to miss the cut by nine shots at the Phoenix Open, then withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open the following week after 11 holes because of tightness in his back.
Woods then announced on his website that he would return to the PGA Tour only when he felt he was “tournament-ready”, a decision he finally reached on Friday after playing his second practice round at Augusta National in four days.
However, “tournament-ready” is a far cry from, “I only tee it up if I believe I can win,” which was the Woods mantra during his glory days from 1997 to 2008 as he piled up 14 major victories.
Woods, whose ranking has plummeted to 104th, has a remarkable record at Augusta National with 13 top-10s in his last 17 Masters starts, and he tied for fourth there in 2010 after not playing competitive golf for five months.
He took an indefinite break from the game in late 2009, as his private life spectacularly unravelled, to try to repair his marriage amid revelations about his extra-marital affairs.
Yet that 2010 Masters performance came after he had triumphed six times on the PGA Tour the previous year before going on to clinch victory at the Australian Masters in mid-November.
Heading into the this year’s Masters is a very different story with Woods withdrawing twice and missing three cuts in just six starts on the U.S. circuit over the past 12 months. His only finish was 69th place at the 2014 British Open.
Swing coach Hank Haney, who helped Woods win 31 PGA Tour events and six major championships during their six years together, recalls the 2010 Masters very well as he and Woods parted company just one month later.
“In 2 trips to Augusta in 2010 before the Masters Tiger failed to break 80, finished 4th that yr, the 74 doesn’t scare me, the chipping does,” Haney tweeted on Friday about Woods’ prospects for the 2015 Masters.
The 74 referred to by Haney was the score reportedly carded by Woods in his first practice round at Augusta National this week, on Tuesday.
One man who is not prepared to write Woods off just yet is Jack Nicklaus, whose record total of 18 major victories has long been targeted by his fellow American.
“Tiger is struggling ... more between his ears than he is any place else,” Nicklaus told Golf Channel’s Morning Drive.
“I think Tiger will turn it around. He’s too dedicated, he works too hard at it, he’s got too much talent. He’ll figure it out.” (Editing by Peter Rutherford)