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What's Ahead For Tiger Woods?

He is unlikely to ever again dominate as he once did, but 2013 could be the start of the most intriguing chapter of the icon's career

January 14, 2013

Something was missing. What it is, as the lyric goes, ain't exactly clear. Finding it was the unsolved mystery of last year and the promise of this one. Whether Tiger Woods locates it in time to break Jack Nicklaus' major championship record or not, what seems manifestly true is this: The closing holes of his inward nine as a champion golfer are a virtual certainty to be as compelling, maybe more so, than the achievements of the heady outward half, if for no other reason than he's now playing into a three-club karmic wind.

Time is the confederate of youth. Faced with a player, 23-year-old Rory McIlroy, who seems to possess the same passing gear only Woods himself could find over the last decade and a half, every opportunity suddenly seems more dear. Woods' talent, as immense as the game has ever seen, comes with a "use-by" date stamped on it just as the gifts of Michael Jordan or Babe Ruth did. Last month Nicklaus, who physically seems to shrink even as the specter of his record grows, walked, as a man nearing 73 does, into the grillroom of The Bear's Club in Jupiter, Fla., complaining he could only hit it 180 yards.

While the goal of every professional golfer with a chance is the same in April, June, July and August, it is precisely because Woods' ambition is so monumental, the feat once so easily contemplated, and the elements inside and outside the ropes so baroque that 2013 means more for him than for any other player in the game, even his new soul mate, McIlroy. Last acts have a dogged pace. Woods, who both makes history and knows it, surely expected there would be someone someday -- another Other -- to divvy up the spoils.

"I know how it feels when you win a major championship," Woods said recently, "and it feels incredible. It stays with you, and that's something that I would like to have happen again." The end goal may be Jack's 18, but majors don't come in a four-pack. The next one is the only one that matters.

Because Nicklaus is not just the target but the template, let's grant Woods the same longevity as Jack, something Tiger's inelastic ligaments might not allow. Jack won four majors after 37, the age Woods is now. Jack's last Masters came at 46. Soup to nuts, that's 40 more at-bats for Woods. He has to hit a dinger in a tenth of them just to tie, a Ruthian pace for sure. The convenient analogy in current vogue is that from here on, Woods has to have Phil Mickelson's career to catch Jack. But, let's not forget with whom we're dealing. Woods won five in his first four years as a professional, a period that included hibernating through his first swing change.

But, of course, he's not the same Woods.

Related: Podcast: Golf World editors discuss Tiger Woods' future

"People keep asking me, is Tiger Woods back?" says CBS' David Feherty as he stands well beyond Kiawah's 18th green, watching McIlroy stuff the out-sized Wanamaker Trophy in his back pocket. "Back where? He's not back where he was at the turn of the century, and it may be another century before anybody gets there. That's an unreasonable standard to hold anybody to." Even the guy who set it.

Woods was a bewildering tease in 2012. Yes, he won three times, then promptly followed each victory with a major letdown. The sudden noise of each success startled the media like starlings on a wire, sending the flock tweeting off into the blogosphere. In February at Pebble Beach head-to-head against Phil Mickelson, Woods wasn't ready for prime time on Sunday. His game, good enough to win at comfortable, old Bay Hill, wasn't ready for high-flying Augusta National. After a dramatic finish to tie Jack's career victory total at the friendly confines of Muirfield Village, Woods opened flawlessly in the U.S. Open but was allergic to Olympic on the weekend. He striped a driver off the 18th tee at Congressional CC to win his own tournament but seemed reluctant to touch the same club at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. While McIlroy swung freely off the tees at the penal Ocean Course, Woods was back in steerage, having elected to come out on Saturday of the PGA to "enjoy" the moment rather than seize it.

During a question-and-answer program in Pinehurst, N.C., Nicklaus said, "This year he [Woods] was right there in three major championships and he was nowhere on Saturday or Sunday in any of them. Some of the folks who are close to Tiger came back and said that Tiger said, 'Hey, I just couldn't play. I was choking.' Whether that's what he really said or not, I don't know." It is, however, what he really did.

One of Woods' longtime friends, John Cook, says, "Why do you choke? Because you don't have real trust in what you're doing. Well, he does now. [2012] was getting back to winning but [this] year, it's statement time."

Related: How Tiger's swing has changed

Woods' instructor, Sean Foley, whose mind is a philosophical gumbo jumbo, naturally had his own take, one that spoke to the degree of difficulty -- though not the impossibility -- of changing ingrained habits. "A neuropsychologist told me, the thing is, our brain just does what it knows," Foley says. "He said, if I teach you how to open the door with the left hand and you're right-handed and you do it for a year and you do it every time, if you wake up in the middle of the night and the house is on fire, what hand do you think you use?"

Presuming that Foley is figuratively teaching Tiger to switch hands, it is no surprise he prefers a long view. "The thing I liked about those [major] weekends," he says, "is it showed me how far we have left to go."

Three-time major champion Padraig Harrington is familiar with the process. Lying face down in the corner of the locker room at Crooked Stick while his back is massaged by a therapist's sharp elbow, Harrington talks into a padded table. "Tiger did well in the majors," he says, punctuating each sentence with a breath, as if he's blowing out a series of single candles. "He was in a position to win every one of those majors. That's all he needs to be in. He knows how to win. It will happen. Put it like this, I'd rather see a player play a tournament, get in contention to win it and finish 20th than the guy who shoots 65 on Sunday to finish fourth. As a player, you should never fear getting into the heat of battle and losing, and Tiger did that [in 2012]. I'd be more worried if he didn't get in there, than being in there and it not happening."

In the Foley universe Woods' year of almosting was more crucial than even what lies ahead. "I would say important is a label but, yeah, to what we need to do, 2012 was a pivotal time," he says. What should not be lost in any dissection of Woods' game is that Foley originally gained traction on the PGA Tour as the instructor who gave Stephen Ames a move his back could live with. "The biggest part to me," says Foley, "is that he's not been reinjured and not even been close to it. So, that's a big deal. That means that mechanically, he's more efficient. I'm not looking to do anything in the short term. This is big picture, OK? We have this many years ahead of us. Preserve the knee, back, neck." But, change is dangerous. It was so even when Gene Sarazen lost his way experimenting with his game during the 1920s.

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