San Martin: The Tiger Woods factor has overshadowed the build-up to this week`s Frys.com Open at CordeValle Golf Club where the former world number one will make his first PGA Tour appearance in almost two months.
Woods has not competed since he missed the cut at the PGA Championship in August, sparking widespread speculation about his form after he tees off in Thursday`s opening round.
A 14-times major champion who is comfortably the best player of his generation, Woods has not won a tournament since the 2009 Australian Masters and his ranking has slipped to a mind-boggling 51st.
Ever since his private life unravelled in sensational fashion at the end of 2009 and he tried unsuccessfully to repair his crumbling marriage, he has been a shadow of the dominant player he once was.
He has struggled for form and fitness this season, and has yet to reap the benefits of the fourth swing change of his professional career.
Fellow American Rocco Mediate, however, fully expects Woods to regain his stranglehold on the game once he becomes accustomed to his revamped swing.
"It`s the physical motion that`s causing the problem, period," Mediate told reporters on Tuesday while preparing for his title defence at CordeValle.
"If he gets his golf swing back, the ball game is over. Trust me. He knows that once he figures out where his ball is going, it`s over. He`s already proved it 71 times, in 14 majors. I think he can be better than he was before."
Woods has won 71 PGA Tour events since turning professional in late 1996, although the most recent of them came at the 2009 BMW Championship.
This week, at the urging of United States Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples, he will be competing for the first time in one of the PGA Tour`s Fall Series events which generally attract only the journeymen on the US circuit.
Huge Frys.com Open billboards depicting Woods and Mediate have been erected beside the motorways heading north and south of San Martin and ticket sales for the event are five times up on last year`s figures.
"I`m really happy he`s playing here because it`s huge for this event and huge for the Fall Series," smiled Mediate.
"I like when he`s in the field and he`s playing his best because it gives you an opportunity to beat the best guy."
Kevin Na, who won his first PGA Tour title at last week`s Las Vegas Open after going winless in his previous 210 career starts, was also delighted to have Woods in this week`s field.
"I am still a Tiger fan," said the South Korea-born American. "I watched him play when I was a kid.”
"The biggest question people ask me is: `Do you think he`ll win again?` I say: `Definitely.` He`s definitely going to win again.”
"But I also tell them that people don`t realise how much other players have stepped up to his level. There are more guys now who are breaking through."
Though Woods has not competed since mid-August, he has been working hard on his game at home in Florida with his swing coach Sean Foley and fired a sizzling 62 in practice last week to break the course record at The Medalist.
"Really excited to get back out there and compete, and knowing that I`m finally healthy enough to do it now," Woods said during a Presidents Cup conference call last week.
"I`ve practised, something I had not done in preparation for Akron and the PGA," he added, referring to his last two PGA Tour events. "I`ve gotten even stronger in my lifting sessions, so things are definitely shaping up quickly."
Woods is not the only big name competing at CordeValle this week. Also taking part are multiple majors winners Ernie Els of South Africa and Argentine Angel Cabrera, and last year`s British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, also of South Africa.