AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) – Tiger Woods ended a week of speculation and debate over the state of his game Friday by announcing he will play next week in the Masters.
Woods, a four-time Masters champion, last competed on Feb. 5 at Torrey Pines when he walked off the course after 11 holes because of tightness in his lower back, and after another shockingly bad display of chipping. That followed a missed cut at the Phoenix Open, where he shot a career-high 82.
Woods played an 18-hole practice round Tuesday at Augusta National, and Golf Channel said he was seen on the practice range Friday morning at the club.
“I’m playing in the Masters,” Woods said on his website. “It’s obviously very important to me, and I want to be there. I’ve worked a lot on my game, and I’m looking forward to competing. I’m excited to get to Augusta, and I appreciate everyone’s support.”
He will have gone nine weeks without competition when he hits his opening tee shot on Thursday at the Masters, which is not unprecedented for Woods. He went nearly five months without playing when he returned in 2010 from a crisis in his personal life that led to one of the greatest downfalls in sport. He tied for fourth that year.
Scrutiny might be even greater this time around.
The last time Woods took an extended break before the Masters, he had won his previous tournament at the Australian Masters. Now, his game has been in disarray over a series of injuries and another change in coaching.
Woods has plunged to No. 104 in the world ranking, his lowest spot since a week before his first professional victory in 1996. He last won a tournament in August 2013 at the Bridgestone Invitational. He hasn’t had a top 10 since the end of 2013.
He missed the Masters last year because of back surgery to alleviate a pinched nerve, and he would up sitting three months. Four tournaments into his return, he again dealt with back pain and sat out the final four months of the season to fully recover and get stronger.
But when he returned at his Hero World Challenge in December, he tied for last in an 18-man field and chipped so poorly that some analysts said he had the chipping yips. He would either duff them short or blade them over the green. At the Phoenix Open this year during the pro-am, Woods hit a bunker shot that went over the green and into the first row of bleachers.
“He’s got to go out and probably exorcise some of those demons,” Paul Azinger, a former PGA champion and ESPN analyst, said Thursday. “The first little pitch shot he’s got to hit – not chip shot, the first little pitch shot he’s got to hit – will be microanalyzed, and he knows that. There’s a big microscope on that guy. I don’t think he’d show up unless he feels like he solved that problem.”
A week after withdrawing in the middle of his round at Torrey Pines, Woods announced that his game and scores were unacceptable and he would not return until he felt he could compete at the highest level.
When he skipped the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, he said he hoped to be ready for the Masters and would continue working.
Second-hand reports have ranged from Woods playing well at his home club of The Medalist in South Florida to making five birdies in a round of 74 at Augusta National earlier this week. Starting next Thursday, everyone will know.