For Tiger Woods, some new beginnings

SAN MARTIN, Calif. -- The comebacks are now nearly too numerous to count, a slew of stops and starts that began the day he hoisted the U.S. Open trophy after an epic playoff victory nearly 3½ years ago.

Tiger Woods returned from major, serious knee surgery to win seven times around the world in 2009, but nothing has been the same since his highly publicized personal problems led to rehab, divorce, coach changes, swing changes, more injuries and a mostly wasted 2011 season.

Now he returns again, this time at a Fall Series event, where most of the PGA Tour's heavy hitters are nowhere to be found, resting after a long season while Woods is trying to get his game in shape -- again.

It has been seven weeks since Woods last played a competitive round at the PGA Championship, where he missed the cut in none-too-impressive fashion, shooting 10 over par for 36 holes. Woods' brief return to the tour stalled after just six rounds.

The Frys.com Open in Northern California is where Woods chose to surface again, taking the unusual step of announcing the tournament more than a month ago and giving the typically sleepy Fall Series events some life.

"I think this is a new start for him,'' said Sean Foley, Woods' swing coach, who has worked with his client several times near his new home in Jupiter, Fla., in the past month. "Not a comeback. Not a cameo. This is a new start in the rest of his career.''

It needs to be, if for no other reason than to put behind all the doubt of the past two years and get on with the business of returning to some semblance of his former self.

"We need him to be him,'' is how Rocco Mediate put it, and it's been a long time since Woods was Woods.

He handled the serious knee injury -- the one that had him hobbling in his U.S. Open playoff win over Mediate -- quite well, winning just his third event back after nearly eight months away. He won six times on the PGA Tour, another time in Australia, and although he had a disappointing defeat at the 2009 PGA Championship, Woods seemed poised to pass Jack Nicklaus on the all-time PGA Tour victory list and continue his pursuit of the major championship record.

Everything changed on Thanksgiving 2009, but did anybody really expect the protracted struggles since?

Woods spent five months away, then tied for fourth at the 2010 Masters. Since then, for every step forward, there have been two painful ones backward.

They include: an upper back/neck issue that forced him to withdraw during the final round of the 2010 Players Championship; a split with coach Hank Haney; a run at the U.S. Open; seemingly hitting bottom at the WGC-Bridgestone; the decision to work with Foley; a good showing at the Ryder Cup; a near victory at the Chevron World Challenge; an offseason to work on a new swing with Foley; a disappointing start to 2011, with just two top-10s, although a promising tie for fourth at the Masters; the injuries that would ruin his year; caddie changes; and Presidents Cup drama.

Woods suffered injuries to his left knee and Achilles during the third round of the 2011 Masters, and although he tied for the lead during the final round, the injuries were serious enough that he basically missed four months of competition. A return at the Players Championship for just nine holes turned out to be a setback, and by the time he teed it up at the WGC-Bridgestone and PGA -- without longtime caddie Steve Williams -- he ran out of tournaments to make the FedEx Cup playoffs, hence another long layoff.

And here we are again.

"First of all, I'm able to walk the golf course,'' Woods said Wednesday after his pro-am round at CordeValle Golf Club, where new caddie Joe LaCava was on the bag. "This is a golf course that I would have a very difficult time walking. As you saw me at Augusta on Sunday, it was difficult.

"I've got my strength back. I've got the explosiveness back in the leg. All that's come back. And that's just from training and having time to heal. Once I've healed, to train on top of it and build all the [way] back up to where it used to be. Then on top of that, I've also had to implement swing changes. Can't do that unless I was healthy.''

Foley noted that when Woods took long breaks before -- notably after the '08 knee surgery -- he returned with the same swing he had been using.

Since Woods started working with Foley around the time of the 2010 PGA Championship, they have been together for just 13 tournaments. Woods is making just his ninth start on the PGA Tour this year and 10th overall. And that includes the nine holes at the Players. And for several months this summer, they were not able to do any work at all.

"His health is much better than I've seen it,'' Foley said. "Basically the lead leg, the left leg, is better than it's been in at least three years. What he's been able to do is put the reps in. People go, 'Oh, the reps thing again.' The thing is, we're trying to get his swing to where he can hit the ball [where] he wants to. And focus on it.

"But it takes time. And when you have so many starts and stops because you're injured and there is a lack of continuity, it's very easy for the brain to go back to its most familiar pattern. There's no way around that.

"He was injured, changing his swing and not being able to put a lot of time into it,'' Foley said. "That's probably the perfect storm for not playing as well as you can.''

Woods shot 62 last week at his new home course, the Medalist, where his 10 birdies led to a course record -- by 2 strokes. It was part of what he called "turning the corner,'' due mostly to what he described as his ability to practice and play for prolonged periods of time.

Whether that translates to tournament golf is another matter. Woods will never relent from his mantra that he enters to win, but the truth is he's completed just six rounds of competitive golf since the Masters. There's got to be some competitive rust to deal with. Although the Frys.com Open field is not of the high caliber he is used to competing against (even though Woods has dropped to 51st in the world, he's the fourth-highest ranked player here this week), Woods should not be expected to have his way.

Tournament officials say ticket sales have increased by 40 percent over last year's event won by Rocco Mediate and media interest required some juggling at CordeValle. October golf tournaments following the Tour Championship don't get much attention, but Woods has changed all that.

He's changed swings and he's changed caddies. Now we'll see if anything has changed with his game.

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