Positive signs for Tiger, but much more work left to be done

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MONTGOMERY, Texas -- Tiger Woods sensed the game tugging at him again, a bittersweet feeling that only a golfer can know. He detected it when driving down Magnolia Lane a few weeks ago, arriving at Augusta National for an all-too-brief cameo.

Woods was at the Masters for the Champions Dinner, on the veranda and in the clubhouse long enough to know that sticking around for the Masters was out of the question.

"To be on the grounds and feel what Augusta is and what the Masters is all about ... to be there and not be able to tee it up, I had to get out of there," Woods said. "I couldn't stay if I wasn't going to play. It was going to drive me nuts. Jason [Day] was texting me, telling me what was going on. I wasn't watching because it would drive me crazy.

"Going there and feeling it, I missed it."

And now Woods has to summon all that championship resolve to resist what is undoubtedly an overwhelming urge -- to play competitive golf sooner rather than later.

Woods was talking Monday evening after playing five holes at Bluejack National, where he officially opened the first domestic course he has designed. Sweat poured off his face and soaked his shirt as a warm, humid late-afternoon outing with longtime buddy Mark O'Meara offered a first glimpse at the 14-time major champion's golf game in 2016.

Considering the depths Woods, 40, had sunk to just a few months ago when pain from a second back surgery was not subsiding, this was progress. There were enough good swings in a lengthy range session and among those five holes to give people reason to think that Woods is coming along nicely.

But to think he is ready for tournament golf, where he'd be taking on the likes of Day, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and a slew of other players who have been practicing and competing during the months when Woods was recuperating, is a reach that Woods' longest drives can't touch.

For a guy with a bad back who just a few months ago was saying he could not see the light at the end of the tunnel and openly wondered if he would ever compete again, Monday's brief exhibition was an excellent sign.

For the same guy who wants to compete with game's best, that goal simply appears unrealistic -- for now.

"It took longer than the previous two surgeries," Woods said, referring to his recovery from the lower-back surgery he had on Oct. 28, his third such surgery overall and second in six weeks last fall. "It just took a while. It's tough to go through. I wasn't in a very good place when we had the Hero [World Challenge]," his annual tournament in December that was played in the Bahamas. "It was not fun when I was in that much pain.

"It wasn't nervy, it was just pain. The nerve part has actually gotten so much better, but it's still painful. I just need to get stronger and make sure that's all good."

Woods said his five-hole tour at Bluejack National was the first time he has played any golf holes since tying for 10th at the Wyndham Championship in August -- eight months ago.

That would seem to suggest that next week's Wells Fargo Championship -- and perhaps the Players Championship in two weeks -- will not be the place where Woods returns to competitive golf.

Based on what Woods has said about his golf so far and the way he looked Monday, there is no way he is ready to get back inside the ropes and play tournament golf. If he chose to play again right now, he'd be choosing to take his lumps in a very public manner, which it is difficult to envision Woods doing.

And yet at some point he will need to play for real and handle all that comes with it.

But unless he is going to great lengths to fool us, Woods needs more time. He needs to be patient, which has always been very difficult for him.

"Eventually I'm going to have to get to a competitive environment," Woods said. "You can't just drop another ball [when you're playing in a tournament]. I have to be 'Player A' all the time. 'Player B' is always better than A, and I need to get to that point and feel that way again.

"The hard part is once I get in that competitive environment to have that patience and plod my way along. I can play a lot more at home and get my playing sense back, but tournament golf is so much different than playing [at] home, and I'll have to make those adjustments. And the only way to make those adjustments is to get out there in the heat and feel it."

Woods offered no timetable for his return and said he has set no goals in that regard. Setting goals has gotten him in trouble in the past. By striving to meet those goals, he has perhaps pushed himself too hard. He cannot afford any setbacks at this point.

All of which suggests that the rumor that he is close to playing again -- which has gained considerable traction of late -- is not based on anything more than wishful thinking.

If a golf tournament is 72 holes, shouldn't Woods simulate that on multiple occasions before trying to do it with a scorecard in hand? Doesn't he need to practice for days on end, play rounds for days on end, work on his putting and chipping for days on end?

He's not there yet.

"I make sure I feel good when I end my practice sessions," he said. "I don't feel bad. When I was younger, I could practice through that, bust through the pain and keep going. I just try to end where everything feels good."

Woods said he felt good Monday, but it was only five holes and he was not grinding, not hitting shots with authority. It was casual golf, friendly golf, far different from what he will have to do when his name is announced on the first tee and thousands of spectators line the fairway.

It was still so much better, so much more promising, than the hope-draining news conference in the Bahamas on Dec. 1. That day was bleak, filled with despair. Monday offered hope, even if it means letting the situation evolve, slowly.

"I would not have said I would be here right now like this [when I was] in the Bahamas," Woods said. "I would not have thought I would have been able to do what I did, to play soccer again with my kids. I would not have said that five months ago."

Now comes the really difficult part. In addition to the physical work Woods must put in, there is the mental hurdle he must overcome. Golf is trying to pull him back in, and Woods is doing all he can to resist -- for now. How long he holds out might ultimately determine the success of this comeback.