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With ailing back, Watney took different route from Tiger

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Don't believe hype around Tiger's comeback (2:45)

Jonathan Coachman and Michael Collins discuss Tiger Woods' much-anticipated return to the golf course and why they think Tiger is not ready for his comeback. (2:45)

NAPA, Calif. -- You know the background: golfer has a bad back, hasn't competed for months, wears the Nike swoosh and is hopeful of a successful comeback.

Nick Watney laughs at the notion that he is another prominent golfer attempting to make a return to competition.

"Big-time is relative,'' Watney said. "Maybe my mom thinks that.''

Watney, 35, has plenty in common with Tiger Woods as it relates to lower-back woes, though Watney is here at the Safeway Open to begin the 2016-17 PGA Tour season and Woods is not.

But Watney has not played since missing the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open in January because of back problems that turned out to be a herniated disk on the left side of his lower back.

Unlike Woods, Watney opted to forgo the microdiscectomy procedure that Woods first had in March 2014 -- and again in September 2015 -- to alleviate the pressure. Watney instead opted for a long rehabilitation process that saw him not pick up a club for five months.

"There was a little bit of a thought to trying to play through it,'' said Watney, a five-time PGA Tour winner whose last victory came at the 2012 Barclays. "But I was really struggling. Maybe if I was playing well it would have been a harder decision. But the way I was feeling and the way I was playing, it just didn't make any sense.''

Watney first felt pain in his left hamstring. He had no idea there were any back issues and figured it would work itself out. But after six weeks, the hamstring was still tight, he wasn't feeling any better, and a chiropractor he had been working with recommended an MRI to see whether there was a tear.

That MRI found the hamstring to be fine but a disk to be herniated. After visiting orthopedic specialists in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Austin, Texas, Watney opted to shut it down for the rest of the season.

"I basically had two options,'' he said. "Surgery and rehab or heal and rehab. So I decided if I'm going to have to rehab anyway, I might as well try to not have surgery. I didn't hit a ball from Jan. 29 until mid-July. Rested and had rehab six days a week. Did exercises to try and take the pressure off. And it slowly got better.''

Whether that would have been the proper course for Woods is purely speculation because nobody knows exactly what difficulties and prognosis the 14-time major champion was given.

But it was clear in the fall of 2013 and into 2014 that Woods was having back problems. He fell to the ground after hitting a shot at the '13 Barclays; he withdrew from the '14 Honda Classic during the final round and then a week later appeared to be in distress during the final round of the WGC event at Doral.

A few weeks later, he had surgery and has struggled to be fully fit, having now taken more than a year away from competition after two more back procedures.

"A microdiscectomy helps the nerve pain right away,'' said Dr. Kyler Brown, the chiropractor who has been working with Watney and helped develop a program for him. "But you can't undo what the surgery does.''

That is why Watney -- who knew he would lose his fully exempt status -- decided to take the rest of the season off and make sure he got healthy.

Because he failed to finish among the top 125 after making just five starts, Watney is playing this season on a major medical extension, which means the PGA Tour has granted him 21 starts to earn either 355 FedEx Cup points or $528,010 -- the equivalent to being 125th in either category in the 2015-16 season.

If he achieves that goal, Watney will be exempt for the rest of the season with the ability to try and earn enough FedEx points to be eligible for 2017-18.

"I didn't want to put any sort of timetable on it,'' Watney said. "Our profession is a bit unique. [Major league pitcher] Clayton Kershaw had a herniated disk, but the Dodgers are paying him $30 million this year, so there's a lot of pressure to come back. I wanted to play, for sure. [But] I didn't want to play half the year. I didn't want to play lousy, come back too soon and then go through this anyway.

"For me at this point, I think I did the smart thing. I got good advice. I hope I don't have any more issues. The rehab and training will be part of my life for the rest of my career. I didn't take it seriously enough before.''

Watney returned in July by hitting just 30 9-irons a day. It took him a month before he played a round of golf, and he was slow to work the driver back into his arsenal. It wasn't until September that he played back-to-back days, and then he slowly built up to playing five days in a row, then playing and walking.

"It was a wake-up call,'' he said. "I didn't want to do too much today so I couldn't play tomorrow. Or play so much in August that I couldn't play now. It's like a pitcher on a pitch count.''

Watney said he plans to play only two events this fall, the Safeway Open and the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas. He'll then resume his schedule on the West Coast but will be more limited than he has been in the past, trying to find the right balance between competing, preparing and taking care of his back.

"I'm hoping he can be somewhat of a role model,'' Brown said. "So many people want to rush back and they don't know what they're risking.''

While Woods has put off his return because he cited doubts about his game, Watney understands. After such a long layoff, there is undoubtedly going to be competitive rust, not to mention issues with the swing, short game, putting and all the mental aspects that go into playing the game.

"I'm cautiously optimistic,'' Watney said. "I don't have that kind of expectations like Tiger has. He's always said it's about being there to win. I'm not here to win or it's a lost week. It's a building process.

"I had a long time to reflect, talked to friends out here about scheduling. I think it's important to have a schedule that you like, but I also don't want to just go play because I can. Play a couple in the fall, keep training and see where it stands.''