By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) - With Tiger Woods hitting golf balls at a juniors clinic in South Carolina earlier this week, media speculation has been mounting that the former world number one could make his PGA Tour return within the next month.
The 14-times major champion has been sidelined from competition since August as he continues his recovery from back surgeries, but has been ramping up his practice routine while at home in Florida.
Some analysts suggest that Woods could make his PGA Tour return as early as the May 5-8 Wells Fargo Championship, but his manager Mark Steinberg said on Friday there was "nothing new to report" with regard to a timetable.
Woods' long-time friend Notah Begay III, a 43-year-old Native American golfer who won four times on the PGA Tour, was wary of getting "too carried away" with media speculation.
"What I can say is that I have seen his progression throughout its entirety," Begay said on Friday in his role as a television analyst with Golf Channel, a day after teaming up with Woods for the juniors clinic at Sage Valley.
"I started seeing him engage in different areas on his rehabilitation ... started seeing him hit pitch shots and then being able to host a clinic with him and walk him through his entire bag from the wedges all the way to the driver.
"So if I were to evaluate this from a beginning point to an end point, with the end goal being a PGA Tour start, Tiger Woods is on the back end of this rehabilitation process."
NO SPECIFIC TIMELINE
Begay, who played with Woods on the Stanford University golf team, offered no timeline.
"Now is that 60, 70, 80 percent through the process? I'm not sure but I can say from what I saw yesterday and from where I saw this thing begin, he is in a much better place," said Begay.
"The strike was good on the ball, he was able to shape it in a variety of different directions and when the junior golfers were screaming out for him to hit the stinger, he did not disappoint.
"He hit a couple of lasers out there that landed at about 240 yards, so definitely power is not a question at this point."
Now aged 40, Woods has not won a major title since he clinched the 14th of his career at the 2008 U.S. Open and his form has slipped dramatically in recent years due to injuries and the mastering of a new swing.
A tie for 10th at the PGA Tour's Wyndham Championship in August, following a dismal season in which he missed three cuts in the majors, gave him encouragement before his health again intervened.
Three weeks later, he had a second microdiscectomy surgery to alleviate pressure on a disc in his lower back, before needing another procedure on Oct. 28 on the same area.
He has since been recuperating and in late February he posted a video of himself swinging a golf club in an effort to shoot down reports that suggested he had endured setbacks.
Woods' world ranking has plummeted to a mind-boggling 486th and earlier this month he missed the Masters for only the second time since his tournament debut in 1995.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Larry Fine)