Woods' return is still anyone's guess

Tiger Woods is set to make his return to professional golf. He will come back at the Tavistock Cup. Or maybe the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Or is it the Masters?

Perhaps he'll play the Tavistock, then skip Arnie's event and compete at Augusta. But he could skip the Tavistock and play at Bay Hill instead. Or he will simply eschew both of 'em and tee it up for the first time this year at the year's first major.

Then again, he could just take a pass on all three.

When it comes to Woods' long-awaited return, only two things are certain: Everybody wants to know when it's going to happen and nobody knows when it will happen.

In recent days, the New York Post reported that sources had him making a comeback at Bay Hill, site of a half-dozen career titles, including the past two. That news was later trumped by reports from the Associated Press and FoxSports.com, each contending Woods wouldn't return sooner than next month's Masters, which begins on April 8.

Feeling a bit skeptical about these latest conflicting developments? You're hardly alone.

Trying to predict Tiger's return has become a race to be the quickest, not the most accurate. How else to explain previous reports that had him competing everywhere from Torrey Pines to the Tucson desert for the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship? In case you've lost track, neither of those things actually happened.

The simple truth is, until we hear the words from Tiger's mouth -- or at the very least, his mouthpiece, considering his usual modus operandi is to release any such news in the form of a post to his personal Web site -- everything else should be taken with a grain of bunker sand.

It's very possible that Woods and his handlers -- an extremely tight-knit group that includes his agent, publicist, swing coach, caddie and, apparently, former White House spin doctor Ari Fleischer -- are currently well aware of his plans and are just waiting for the right moment to make them known. It has been rumored that Woods will give more notice than his regular Friday-afternoon deadline decision; if that's the case, expect an announcement sooner rather than later, especially if it's true that he'll return at one of the three widely discussed upcoming events.

There's also a chance that Tiger's people are simply putting up a smoke screen, offering hints and allusions to the site of his return and perhaps sending mixed messages to separate sources in an attempt to diffuse the inevitable circus-like atmosphere that will certainly envelop his return.

And then there's a third scenario, one that would relegate all of the recent reports null and void: Even Woods doesn't yet know when he will compete again.

Just because he has been working with swing coach Hank Haney, it has been assumed that Tiger has a specific timetable for when he will come back to golf. That may not be the case, though.

Four years ago, he took a nine-week leave of absence following the death of his father, Earl. In his first tournament back, Woods shot 76-76 to miss the cut at the U.S. Open -- his first MC at a major championship since turning professional.

Looking defeated and defatigable, he walked off the course that day and admitted, "I was not ready to play golf."

If Tiger Woods has learned from that experience, he will not come back to professional golf this time until he is ready not only to compete, but to win. If he hasn't yet reached that level of preparation, his reportedly imminent return may still be in doubt.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.