With return unclear, wait will continue

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The home of the PGA Tour is accustomed to the masses swarming the famous golf course here to watch one of the game's most famous players.

But as Friday's events unfolded, commissioner Tim Finchem could only dream of so much attention being fostered on his beloved Players Championship, the tour's signature golf tournament and erstwhile fifth major.

A media contingent that could not even view the proceedings in person or ask questions descended upon the vicinity of the TPC Sawgrass on Friday for the long-awaited public emergence of Tiger Woods after a scandal that is into its third month.

You don't see nearly this many media folks here for the Players Championship, and it appears likely we won't see Woods here for the May tournament, either.

Most of Woods' prepared remarks dealt with his off-the-course transgressions and taking responsibility for his actions, but he did hint at his golf future.

The good news for Tiger fans: He'll be back.

The bad news for Tiger fans: We have no idea when.

"I do plan to return to golf one day, I just don't know when that day will be," Woods said. "I don't rule out that it will be this year."

That leaves myriad possibilities, not the least of which is he will miss all four major championships in a year when the venues were seemingly made for him. He has won seven of his 14 career majors on courses slated for 2010's biggest events.

Woods is in the midst of a 101-day layoff that has not seen him strike a shot in a tournament since winning the Australian Masters on Nov. 15.

It is the second-longest absence of his career -- he was gone 256 days following June 2008 knee surgery until he returned at the 2009 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship -- the same tournament that has been upstaged this week.

If Woods misses the Masters in April, it will be the first time in his professional career that he skips the season's first major championship, a tournament he has played every year dating to his amateur days in 1995.

Woods has also played in every U.S. Open dating to 1995. This year's tournament is at Pebble Beach, where in 2000 he won the first of three Open titles in record-setting fashion with a 15-shot victory.

He has played in 50 of the past 52 majors, winning 14 of them.

"Golf is pretty far down the list," said PGA Tour player Notah Begay, a friend and former teammate at Stanford who was in the room for Woods' remarks in the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse.

"He didn't give any indication as to when he would play next. If you look at some of the words, it was personal healing and then dealing with these personal matters. He's got a very big barrier in front of him."

Woods disclosed that he was in a rehabilitation center for 45 days and that he is scheduled to return for treatment for an indefinite period of time beginning Saturday.

Although photos of Woods playing golf near his Orlando home surfaced this week, it is likely one of the few times he has hit golf balls since this ordeal began with a Nov. 27 car accident outside of his home.

"He'll do it when it's his time," said British Open champion Stewart Cink at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona.

"My sense is that he will play when he's ready and thinks he can compete," Finchem said. "But he has prioritized clearly now over the last three months getting to a certain point in the issues he's dealing with before he wants to take that step, and only he can make that decision.

"When he's prepared to say when he's prepared to do that, take that step, I'm sure he'll let us know. But I have no timeline in my own mind as to when that would be."

Finchem maintained that the game and the PGA Tour will be fine in Woods' absence, despite the drop-off in attendance and television ratings that occurs when he is not in the field.

Still, there is the fear of the unknown.

When Woods had surgery following his epic 2008 U.S. Open victory, we knew the parameters: a six-month period of recovery, followed by work to get his game ready. He ended up being away for eight months.

Now, the timeline is much less clear.

We don't know how long the rehab stint will last, nor how much time Woods will require to get his game back in shape to try to compete at the highest level.

"It's very similar to when he was out in 2008 with an injury," Finchem said. "It's important to have him back. But I think there is this other dimension. Fans want to see him come back, handle his personal issues. ... I think he'll figure this out in a positive way. If he does that, I think he'll be an even [bigger] impact. ... He has set a course now, and I wouldn't bet against him."

Betting on when he returns now becomes another matter, one that assures this drama will continue.

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