Tiger Woods: What now after his latest setback?

Tiger Woods
Woods has pulled out of the Safeway Open, claiming his game is "vulnerable"

So it is now a lack of form rather than fitness holding back Tiger Woods in his fight to compete for the first time since August last year.

His withdrawal from this week's Safeway Open came as a shock, given his commitment to the event only last Friday. And his decision to skip the California tournament has prompted inevitable torrents of wild speculation over his future.

Some are saying he is finished, others claim the 40-year-old is suffering stage fright. Respected Golf Channel pundit Brandel Chamblee suggests Woods is in a decline similar to the one suffered by Seve Ballesteros.

And it is sad that such an iconic figure remains unable to compete after 14 months away from the game recovering from multiple back surgeries.

But it does feel as though there is a considerable over-reaction to Woods' decision to miss the PGA Tour's season-opening tournament.

So much unfounded speculation surrounds the 14-time major champion and this is compounded by his secretive ways which have spawned an industry in conspiracy theories.

So let's try to look at the facts.

The Safeway Open was the perfect tournament to target for his comeback. Woods owed an appearance to the event (previously known as the Frys.com Open) after being given a release to play in an exhibition event in Turkey four years ago.

As PGA Tour events go, it is relatively low key and played on a straightforward course at the Silverado Resort. Woods has been getting stronger and felt he would be ready to play.

When he officially entered the event last Friday, it was the PGA Tour rather than Woods' website that broke the news. This is a change from the norm and the player's reluctance to trumpet his return suggests doubts remained even while his entry forms were being signed.

ustin Johnson, vice-captain Tiger Woods and captain Davis Love III of the United States celebrate after winning the Ryder Cup during singles matches of the 2016 Ryder Cup
Tiger Woods was a vice-captain for the United States at this year's Ryder Cup

Another break from the Woods' modus operandi was his statement of September 7, when he outlined his intended comeback schedule. It is rare for him to detail his calendar but he identified Silverado, the Turkish Airlines Open and and his own World Challenge event in the Bahamas.

Woods said he "couldn't wait to compete again" but added a significant caveat: "My hope is to have my game ready to go.…"

It is now clear that his play is currently not of the requisite standard. "He just didn't feel like his game was where he wanted it to be to be competitive," said his close friend Notah Begay.

The former Tour pro, who acts as an unofficial spokesman for his illustrious mate, also suggested Woods has not been able to put in enough practice to make his game sharp enough.

This could be because the player's recovering but aging body is not up to the intense range regimes of old or it might just mean he still has a long way to go to return to his former standards.

Who knows?

We can only speculate but what we do know is that such is his celebrity, he cannot make a quiet comeback. This week he would have played the pro-am with basketball star Steph Curry and was to be paired with Phil Mickelson for the first two rounds.

Back in 1997 former tennis world number one Andre Agassi had fallen off the cliff in his career and needed to find a way back. His return began at an anonymous Challenger Event with a first prize of $7,200 and next to no-one watching.

Vice-captain Tiger Woods of the United States high fives fans during practice prior to the 2016 Ryder Cup
Tiger Woods still has a massive fan base despite having not played golf for 14 months

When Canadian golfer Graeme DeLaet underwent similar back surgery to Woods in 2011 he made his comeback at the rather understated Melwood Prince George's County Open.

Woods does not have the option of a return away from the spotlight against players of a somewhat lesser standard. And wherever he comes back, he knows every shot will be analysed to the nth degree.

It goes with the territory when you have been the planet's pre-eminent sportsman, but the stark reality is that he is now the world's 786th ranked golfer and it is a very long way back from such a position.

This is not the first time he has taken himself out of the firing line. At the beginning of last year he suffered a bout of destructive chipping 'yips' as he missed the cut in Phoenix and withdrew mid-tournament at Torrey Pines the following week.

That was in early February and we did not see Woods again until the Masters two months later. The media centre went on 'yip watch' from the moment the four-time champion strolled on to the Augusta practice range.

Yet, on a course that puts the biggest demands on short-game sharpness, Woods delivered a polished display with his wedges and collected a creditable top 20 finish.

This is a man who won a US Open on one leg back in 2008, his last major victory. If nothing else he is a fighter, as we saw with that extraordinary triumph.

Now he is embroiled in a battle to save his career. Pulling out of the Safeway Open is an embarrassment but not the end.

"I will continue to strive to be able to play tournament golf," Woods insisted. "I'm close, and I won't stop until I get there."

On that he deserves to be believed.