Tiger Woods is set to return to competitive golf at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, where, as the tournament host, he is eligible for a special exemption given to ... the tournament host.
While everyone else in the 18-player field will be ranked among the top 50 in the world, Woods -- ranked 1,199th -- will be making his first tournament start since withdrawing from the Dubai Desert Classic prior to the second round on Feb. 3. Since then, he underwent his fourth back surgery.
Stalled on 79 PGA Tour titles since 2013, Woods, 41, has made just 19 worldwide starts since the first of his back surgeries on March 31, 2014. During that span, he has missed seven cuts and withdrawn from three tournaments. He missed the cut in the past three majors he has played and has just a single top-10.
So with all that time away, how is Woods eligible to play when he resumes official tournaments?
The major championships
For the most part, this is not an issue. As a past champion, Woods is eligible to play the Masters and PGA Championship for life. He can play The Open until age 60.
The biggest issue will come at the U.S. Open, where Woods is exempt through only the 2018 tournament at Shinnecock Hills, based on the 10-year exemption he received for winning at Torrey Pines in 2008. Barring qualifying in some other way (world rankings, FedEx Cup), Woods would, in theory, need to go through sectional qualifying.
But that almost assuredly won't happen. Woods is likely to receive a special exemption from the United States Golf Association in 2019 at Pebble Beach (where he won in 2000) and conceivably as many as he wants beyond that.
Why? To start, Woods is a nine-time USGA champion (three U.S. junior amateurs, three U.S. Amateurs and three U.S. Opens). Also, his place in the game suggests the USGA will reward him, just as it did Jack Nicklaus (eight special exemptions) and Arnold Palmer (six). USGA executive director Mike Davis would not go so far as to guarantee it, but the safe bet is that if Woods is playing and competing at a reasonable level, he will get the exemptions if he wants them.
The PGA Tour
Although Woods has not finished among the top 125 in the FedEx Cup standings or money earnings since 2013 -- the basic barometer for exempt status -- he should have few worries about playing a full schedule, if he chooses.
For 2018, Woods is exempt based on his 2013 Players Championship victory, which comes with a five-year exemption. Once that expires, his Lifetime Member exemption would kick in, which gives exempt status to a player who has at least 20 PGA Tour victories. Davis Love III and Vijay Singh are using that exemption in 2018.
There are numerous exemption categories on the PGA Tour, and the Lifetime Member status is 18th on the list -- before the top 125 from the prior year's FedEx points list. In other words, Woods would have no trouble getting into any regular PGA Tour event he wants to play.
Where getting starts will be an issue is at the World Golf Championship events and the invitationals, including his own National tournament that has been played in Washington, D.C. The WGCs do not have sponsor exemptions nor any stipulations for past performance, not even for someone who has won 18 of them, such as Woods. He will need to perform now -- basically, get inside the top 50 in the world or the top 64 in the case of the Match Play event.
As for the invitationals? No sweat. The Arnold Palmer, Memorial (Jack Nicklaus) and his own National will undoubtedly give him a sponsor exemption and drop him at the first tee.
The Web.com Tour
It would make sense for Woods to play some warm-up events on the developmental tour to see where his game stacks up.
Forget it. Woods would never do it, and he can't even do so if he wanted to.
Although he is like many players who are coming off an injury, he does not need a major or minor medical exemption to play the PGA Tour because of other exemption status. An exempt player on the PGA Tour cannot play a Web.com event.
For those who are not exempt in any other way, a Major Medical Exemption gets players a certain number of starts to earn a specific number of FedEx points -- based on the 125th finisher last season. It is based on each individual case.
For example, Sang Moon Bae, who missed the past two seasons while serving mandatory military duty in South Korea, has been given 27 starts this season to amass 365 FedEx Cup points -- the number of points J.J. Henry earned as the 125th finisher last season. Should Bae do that, he would remain exempt for the rest of the season.
To not use up those starts, some players elect to enter Web.com Tour events for practice purposes, and they are allowed up to five tournaments that don't count against their total of PGA Tour starts granted to retain their card.
The Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup
Woods has served as an assistant captain to Davis Love III at the 2016 Ryder Cup and to Steve Stricker at the 2017 Presidents Cup. By all accounts, he has been a hands-on assistant, getting very involved in the process of pairings and mentoring.
No doubt, Woods would love to play on the Ryder Cup team in Paris next September, and captain Jim Furyk would love to have him. But it would seem the 2019 Presidents Cup might be a more attainable goal, if Woods shows any form -- a big assumption.
If Woods is playing well, certainly there would be a chance for a captain's pick. But that kind of talk is but a dream at this point.
For some, this seems the best avenue -- which conveniently forgets the fact that many people retire to play golf and that golfers never really retire.
If this were to happen at some point, there is no formal process for doing it with the PGA Tour, and it seems highly unlikely that Woods would shut the door on playing in the future anyway and make some sort of formal announcement.
Remember, he has business interests, too, that make remaining active important.
In 2017, Woods signed endorsement deals with Bridgestone golf balls and TaylorMade clubs. He also has his Tiger Woods Foundation, which counts on its namesake in a big way for awareness and fundraising. There is no better way for that to happen than for Woods to take part in his own foundation's tournaments (including the Hero World Challenge, Genesis Open and the National) and by staying visible as a player. In years past, Woods donated his tournament winnings from events he hosted directly to his foundation.