Tiger Woods' return still in question

Tiger Woods' first drive of the Open Championship at Royal St. George's sailed into the rough and, after an exhaustive search, could not be found amid the heather and tall grass.

He trudged back to the tee, reloaded, made a triple-bogey 7 on the hole, then ended up losing the championship by a mere 2 strokes to unheralded Ben Curtis three days later.

Woods was enduring a frustrating season back in 2003, the last time the Open was held at the southeast England links. Although he won five times on the PGA Tour, he was in the midst of a swing overhaul and didn't capture any of the year's major championships after having won seven of 11 through the 2002 U.S. Open.

Oh, to have those kinds of problems today.

The issues of now put into perspective just how great Tiger was then.

Instead of chasing more glory next week, Woods will miss his fourth major championship of the past 13 because of injury. Talk used to be about his winning them at that rate, not sitting them out.

He will not return this year to Royal St. George's, one of the handful of major championship venues where Woods failed to convert when he was right there with a chance.

Yet who really expected him to be among the contenders as the third major championship of the year unfolds?

The news Tuesday that he would not play next week was certainly not a surprise. Woods said on his website that doctors have advised him not to play and that he won't compete again until he is 100 percent healthy. So he got the speculation out of the way early.

And given that Woods said last week that he had done nothing but putting since the Players Championship -- which was now two months ago -- it hardly made sense for Woods to go all the way to England.

Now the Bridgestone watch commences. Woods likely will target the World Golf Championship event at Firestone Country Club as his return. He has four weeks to prepare for the no-cut event at a place where he has won seven times.

Of course, it is also the place where he had his worst 72-hole tournament as a pro a year ago. Woods was awful in the midst of his divorce, swing changes and myriad other things that had to be dancing around in his head as he attempted to put his life and game back together.

A week later, Woods began working with Sean Foley at the PGA Championship, and there was incremental improvement for the rest of the year. Although he didn't find nearly the same success early in 2011 as many had expected, he did have that tie for fourth at the Masters, which included a riveting front-nine 31 in the final round.

His finish at Augusta National, although ultimately disappointing to him, was viewed as a launching point for the rest of the year.

Instead, the injuries to his left knee and Achilles disclosed more than a week later have proved to be as troublesome as his swing. He's been unable to work on his game, which needed considerable work.

Woods said last week that he expected to play again this year, but his opportunities to do so on the PGA Tour are fleeting. He is 116th in FedEx Cup points, and only the top 125 qualify for the first playoff event, which is two weeks after the PGA Championship.

If he intends to come back somewhat soon, Woods certainly would like to play at least one playoff event. He'd need to be in the top 100 to make it to the second one, the Deutsche Bank Championship.

All of this, of course, seems surreal. How absurd would it have been as recently as two years ago to be discussing Woods' prospects of making an end-of-the-year playoff race?

Then again, it seemed pretty crazy all those years ago when players, caddies and officials were searching in vain for that lost ball in the rough at Royal St. George's.

Today it seems pretty tame by comparison.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.