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Tiger Woods can win again, says ex-coach Hank Haney

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Tiger Woods will lug a host of questions with him to his first PGA Tour start in more than a year, but Hank Haney is sure about one thing: if he’s healthy, his former student can add to his 79 career victories.

"He’s still Tiger Woods," Haney, Woods’ swing coach for six years, said Friday on his SiriusXM PGA Tour radio show after Tiger confirmed he would tee it up at this week’s Safeway Open. "If he has the ability to practice with his body, if it will let him, and if he has the desire, then there’s no reason in the world why he can’t get back and win some golf tournaments."

Given the uncertainty surrounding all things Tiger — how is his back after three microdiscectomy surgeries, how long will it take for the aging superstar to shake off the rust, are Sam Snead’s tour wins (82) and Jack Nicklaus’ majors (18) records back in play — it was not surprising that Haney offered a big-time caveat to his rosy prediction.

"He’s a 41- or 42-year-old professional athlete [Tiger’s 40 for another couple of months] that has had four knee operations and three back operations and has missed five of six years of the last nine years," said Haney. "I mean, it’s just very, very, very difficult."

Without belaboring the non-back-related issues that have sidelined Woods over the years, the evidence since Tiger’s first microdiscectomy in March 2014 supports Haney’s observation. Indeed, his back was likely bothering him at the start of the 2014 season, which he kicked off in January with his first-ever 54-hole missed cut at Torrey Pines, where he has seven wins in his career.

Woods did cite a bad back for his early exit from the Honda Classic in February of that year.

Following a T25 finish at the WGC-Cadillac Championship that March, Woods announced he had undergone his first back surgery. What followed was a layoff of two and a half months that included his first no-show at the Masters as a professional.

Woods came back but things went from bad to worse after a 69th-place finish at the Open Championship. He withdrew after 62 holes from the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in August at Firestone, a track that had yielded eight of his tour wins. A week later, he missed the cut at the PGA Championship.

Ineligible for the postseason FedEx Cup series, Woods was done until December, when he showed up at the Hero World Championship with the full-blown chipping yips. He came in last at the limited-field event.

The next season was just plain ugly for Woods, who missed the cut in Phoenix, posting his then-career-worst 18-hole score of 82 in the second round. He flailed around Torrey again, making it through just 14 holes before calling it quits and blaming "misfiring glutes" for the WD.

A two-month hiatus followed, toward the end of which Golf Channel’s Tim Rosaforte reported that Tiger had scored a "worst-ball" 66 at Medalist. Woods returned to competition and scored a respectable T17 at the Masters.

Tiger then struggled through The Players Championship (T69) and the Memorial (71st with a third-round, career-high 85), posted a T32 at the Greenbrier between MCs at the U.S. and British Opens, missed a second straight PGA cut, and seemed back on track with his game at the Wyndham.

Then came Woods' stunning announcement that he had required a second microdiscectomy and follow-up procedure, and had no timetable for a return. He subsequently missed the entire 2015-16 season.

While there was no guarantee that he would ever return to the tour, Tiger hinted throughout this year that he was on his way back, starting with the "progressing nicely" home video he posted in February.

After Woods skipped his second straight trip to Augusta, Rosaforte got everyone’s hopes up with a couple of April reports that Tiger was back to up to speed.

The most recent Tiger sighting -- that dreadful Quicken National exhibition when he rinsed three wedge shots on a 100-yard par-3 hole -- was hardly a good omen.

Apparently, though, all of that is behind Tiger, who will turn up in Napa after a successful debut as vice captain to Davis Love III’s U.S. Ryder Cup-winning team and a turn on the sidelines of Stanford's 42-16 drubbing on Saturday.

Though Woods appeared fit in both public appearances, the only indication that he was ready to take on Phil Mickelson this week and Rory McIlroy and the other youngsters moving forward was a breathless report from Jesper Parnevik that his Medalist playing partner was "flushing everything."

Parnevik suggested that Tiger's latest comeback could be "spectacular," but, like that "worst-ball 66," Woods has been striking the ball out of sight of prying eyes. This week, as Haney noted, the forensics teams will comb over every errant drive and chunky chip.

"There’s always pressure when you are Tiger Woods. He knows everybody is watching," Haney noted. "People have said he should sneak out there and play this tournament or that tournament. You don’t just speak out some place when you are Tiger Woods. Everybody’s going to be watching, they are going to be watching your every move."

But this is Tiger Woods, Haney reminded his listeners.

"He’s dealt with that forever. He can handle it," said Haney. "It’s just a question of whether or not his game is there and we’re going to find out."