JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Tiger Woods finally gets back to golf next week at the Bridgestone Invitational, ending an 11-week break to heal injuries to his left leg.
Woods used his website to announce his return on Thursday. He posted on his Twitter account that he’s “feeling fit and ready to tee it up at Firestone next week. Excited to get back out there!”
It marks the third-longest layoff of his career, only this time Woods returns with as much uncertainty about his future as ever. Along with questions about the strength of his left knee and Achilles’, Woods embarks on his latest comeback with a different caddie, and without guarantees he will be eligible for more than two weeks.
Woods last month fired Steve Williams, who caddied for Adam Scott at the U.S. Open, then angered his boss by working for the Australian again at the AT&T National without seeking permission.
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The Golf Channel reported Thursday night that Bryon Bell, a childhood friend and president of Tiger Woods Design, would caddie for him at the Bridgestone Invitational. Bell has caddied for Woods three times – a win at the 1999 Buick Invitational, a tie for second at the Buick Invitational when Woods gave him a chance to help defend, and a tie for second in 2003 at the Disney Classic when Woods gave Williams the week off for a car race in New Zealand.
Mark Steinberg, Woods’ agent at Excel Sports Management, declined to confirm Bell would be on the bag, saying in a text message that “no long term been discussed yet as he just decided tonight he was fit and ready to go next week.”
Bell would bring a level of familiarity to Woods, although Bell was implicated during Woods’ sex scandal as allegedly arranging travel for one of his mistresses.
Woods has plunged to No. 21 in the world – his lowest ranking since Jan. 26, 1997 – and has gone more than 20 months since last winning the Australian Masters on Nov. 15, shortly before he was exposed for having multiple extramarital affairs that led to divorce.
He last played May 12 at The Players Championship, when he withdrew after going 6 over on the front nine because of recurring pain in his left leg. He has said he would not compete again until he was fully healed.
How long he lasts might depend on more than just his leg, however.
By missing three months, including the last two majors, Woods has gone from No. 81 to No. 133 in the FedEx Cup standings. Only the top 125 players qualify for the opening round of the playoffs at The Barclays, likely leaving him only the Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship next week to make up ground. Otherwise, he would have at least five weeks off without being able to play on the PGA Tour.
At least he is returning to a friendly course – Woods has won seven times at Firestone, matching the most he has won on any course as a pro. However, he was at his low point on the course in the Bridgestone Invitational last year when he finished 78th in an 80-man field. Before that, Woods had never finished out of the top five.
Woods missed the second half of the 2008 season following reconstructive knee surgery, then sat out five months after crashing his car into a fire hydrant on Thanksgiving night in 2009, changing his career on and off the golf course. His image shattered, he lost four major corporate endorsements and still has not found an endorsement for his bag. He was divorced in August 2010, and he left IMG when the management company did not renew Steinberg’s contract.
On the course, Woods has lost the aura he built while becoming the sport’s most dominant figure in the last 40 years. He remains stuck on 14 majors – the last one was in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines – and he nearly missed the cut the last time the PGA Championship was played at Atlanta Athletic Club in 2001.