Tiger is back, but can he come back?

Tiger Woods' big comeback

Tiger is back, and he's ahead of schedule.

At 8:12 a.m. EDT Thursday, Tiger Woods teed off at the Quicken Loans National amid a fan-packed Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., officially beginning a comeback from a back surgery that had sidelined him from some of golf's premiere events.

His first drive—which sailed over the green into a bunker—attracted a large gallery of spectators eager to see if Tiger is really back in top form. The golf superstar had been targeting the British Open in July for his return, but just hours before the deadline last week he announced he would play at Congressional—an event that just happens to benefit his charity, the Tiger Woods Foundation. Without that draw, he said, he would probably not be playing at all, and his comeback would have had to wait.

Tiger Woods is back...but are his fans?

There's more than golf on the line. Tiger is his sport's lone global superstar, and whether or not he shows up for a given event can make or break TV ratings and the bottom line of the sport itself. Experts say TV ratings can drop as much as 25 to 30 percent when Tiger doesn't playa stat that was on harsh display at the Masters this month where CBS saw just under 11 million viewers, a 25 percent decline from the previous year.

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But Woods' return to competition came too late to boost ticket prices much for the Quicken Loans National. StubHub reports that prices jumped from $42 to $54 after he confirmed he would play. But the spike could have been even larger if his announcement had come in time for traveling fans to make plans to travel to Bethesda.

For his part, Tiger has made the most of his trip to the Washington suburbs. He joined members of the 2013 U.S. President's Cup team for a ceremony with President Barack Obama at the White House on Tuesday to celebrate their win against the International team last fall.

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There, the golf-loving president noted that Woods had clinched the win for the U.S. team in October. This week, Tiger, and the world, will find out if he can regain that winning form.

—By CNBC's Eamon Javers