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Tiger hedges his bets on return plan

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Tiger ready to return to golf (1:53)

Bob Harig explains what Tiger Woods' golf game could look like if he returns to play at the Safeway Open. (1:53)

CARMEL, Ind. -- One way for Tiger Woods to temper expectations as he makes his return to competitive golf is to lower his own.

And that typically has not worked too well.

Woods might rather share a day on his yacht with Sergio Garcia than admit he would show up to a golf tournament with anything less than winning on his mind.

But considering the two back surgeries he underwent last fall (and three overall), the year he spent without competitive golf, and the issues that were apparent in his game before he shut it down in 2015 ... all of that tends to build up a big heap of perspective.

And Woods seemed to show that Wednesday when he announced that he "hopes'' to return next month at the Safeway Open in Napa, California, as well as participate in the Turkish Airlines Open in November and the Hero World Challenge in December.

"My rehabilitation is to the point where I'm comfortable making plans, but I still have work to do,'' Woods said in a statement. "Whether I can play depends on my continued progress and recovery. My hope is to have my game ready to go.''

Woods hedged, which is unlike him. He let the world know he plans to come back at those tournaments, but with conditions. If he's not yet ready to go, he won't. And the fact that he has acknowledged that he still has work to do is a good sign.

Unlike just about any other player in golf, Woods cannot return in peace. He can't show up and hope to just play tournament golf, work his way around, get comfortable again. There are no minor-league rehab starts in golf, no closed-door scrimmages.

There are not any tournaments, period, where Woods could go to hone his skills without every shot, every hole, every round being documented.

"I don't think you guys [in the media] allow for expectations to be lowered,'' said Mark Steinberg, Woods' agent. "Regardless of what he shoots or how he plays, it'll be analyzed in every way.''

Steinberg is correct. Undoubtedly, every shot Woods hits in Napa will be noted. Even if he were to return in Turkey, the media would show up and television would show every swing. It's simply the world Woods lives in, the one he all but created with his excellence.

But Woods can't worry about any of that. Saying he's looking to build back his game, stroke by stroke, tournament by tournament is the only way to execute this return.

"It's not going to be a straight pathway to success,'' said Woods' longtime friend and Golf Channel analyst Notah Begay. "I mean, let's be honest.''

The fact that he hopes to play a European Tour event as well as his own World Challenge is also a good sign. The latter event doesn't have a 36-hole cut, so it provides an opportunity to play more rounds. It gives him one tournament a month with plenty of time to rest, recover, reassess.

And if Woods is healthy -- still a big concern -- and able to practice and prepare properly, then playing tournaments is the logical next step in the process of becoming competitive again.

"People are going to expect him to go out at Napa and play well and it's going to take time,'' said Rory McIlroy at the BMW Championship. "It's a process, and sometimes you have to take the bigger picture and take the longer view of things, and that's what Tiger started to do with his injury. And I'm sure he's sort of thinking, 'Play at Napa,' but the long-term goal is if he can get himself ready for the Masters next year, then that's where he wants to be.''

That sounds like a reasonable goal, but even that might be asking too much. Woods needs to first start putting rounds together. He then needs to make cuts, turn 73s into 69s, perhaps even start contending. How long will that take? Depending on his back, his swing, his short game ... the possible answers are wide-ranging.

And then there is the other element that Woods brings to a tournament. "I think I missed the buzz he creates,'' McIlroy said. "He brings an aura and an atmosphere that no one else in golf can bring. I missed that part of it, for sure.''

All of that, of course, creates pressure, which not even Woods is immune to. And it is another situation he will need to control.

Jason Day has sought advice from Woods over the past year or so and they communicate frequently. Although Day didn't know Woods was coming back before anyone else did, he wasn't surprised.

Their conversations suggested that Woods was getting closer.

"I think the hardest thing for him is just to try and get the rust out and really get back to game-ready sharpness, which is obviously a difficult thing to do,'' Day said. "Although we're expecting big things from him, I don't expect too much from him, even though he is Tiger Woods.

"It's hard to say that, because he's been out of the game for a while. Even though he's one of the greatest of all time, it's very difficult to kind of get that sharpness back.''

The players know that. And deep down, Woods knows that, too. It's just never been part of his makeup to approach tournament golf that way. Perhaps that is why he's won 79 PGA Tour events, 14 major titles and more than $100 million in prize money. His approach has served him well.

"He's the one who knows what his body has gone through and to get back to the point of playing competitively,'' Steinberg said. "As a group, we have big-picture talks, of course we do. But he'll have his own expectations. And you kind of have to go with that.''

The hope is that Tiger manages those expectations -- just as everyone else should.