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Eager For Tiger's Return (Again)

By Jaime Diaz Photos by Mladen Antonov
June 23, 2014

On first impression, this latest Tiger Woods comeback seems wrong. Too soon, too iffy, too tied to commerce. Even the tournament where he's making his return -- the Quicken Loans National -- sounds like it's in too big a hurry.

The collective relief expressed upon learning that the current world No. 5 is back on track to play both the British Open and the PGA Championship has felt a little unhealthy. Logically, this should be a time for golf to ease up on its Tiger fixation and begin celebrating other top players.

And yet, there's no denying that everything a healthy Woods can bring -- drama, virtuosity, history -- makes golf more riveting. And regardless of all the factors that have diminished his game in recent years, including the invisible ones he more than ever keeps to himself, I still have a very hard time not believing in Tiger Woods.

Why? Well, all the moments -- from his miracle junior and amateur wins to the epic theater of the 1997 Masters to the sustained span of the best golf ever -- in which Woods transcended his sport's built-in guards against utter domination and dominated as dynamically as any athlete in history. Similar moments haven't happened in a long time, but not so long that I've accepted they can't happen again.

It's hard for anyone who loves excellence to let go, including and perhaps even especially the players who appreciate the privilege of competing against Woods. "We need Tiger," Keegan Bradley said last week. "The whole tour needs Tiger, and golf needs Tiger."

Perhaps, but before favoring the legend over the limitations, a reality check. Woods is 38, six years removed from his last major victory, and coming off back surgery to relieve a pinched nerve. Even if he were to again climb to No. 1, it wouldn't be with the breathtaking power that marked his prime but with a more professional precision. With much less margin for error, some skeptics -- who also wonder if his appearance at Congressional is really about being a tournament host needing to appease a new sponsor -- question whether Woods has the energy needed to assault the mountain yet again.

All legitimate points. But another that is rarely mentioned -- and could negate them all -- is the state of Woods' most important asset: his mind. No doubt it was in a jumble post-scandal, and my own theory is that Tiger's refusal to depart from the worn-out litany of "reps," "feels" and other jargon when he deigns to discuss his game is designed to avoid addressing the real issue: what's going on between his ears. As a result, a bunch of baggage -- some of it very heavy -- has lingered.

Is there a better explanation why he hasn't broken 70 on the weekend of a major -- territory he used to own -- since the 2011 Masters?

But recently, encouraging signs. Woods' relationship with his ex-wife, Elin Nordegren, appears to be on good terms based on Nordegren's recent interview in People magazine, in which she said she was happy that Tiger and girlfriend Lindsey Vonn are together, and called him "a great father." Such positive public comments might help a much buffeted man feel better, especially during an extended downtime that afforded Woods the opportunity to reflect on and perhaps even figure out where he's been and where he's going.

If his mind is right, the present could be fruitful. It almost has to be, if Woods, who turns 39 in December, is to win the five major championships needed to break Jack Nicklaus' record. Urgency was undoubtedly a factor in his pushing to play the year's last two majors, and must have made missing a U.S. Open contested over Pinehurst No. 2's generous fairways hard to take. What gave this comeback a rushed aspect was Woods for the first time invoking something less than his career-long "only show up to win" standard. "I will be a bit rusty," he wrote in his Facebook announcement, "but I want to play my way back into competitive shape."

Then again, Woods might be lowering expectations to make good play more psychologically attainable and that much more astounding. It's hard to believe he would risk undoing all the surgery and rehab, or put an impaired game on display, just out of impatience.

Of course, don't go by me, one of the unhealthily attached. Maybe the old Tiger is gone. All things, after all, must end. But we just saw both Martin Kaymer and Michelle Wie achieve major career revivals, and perhaps the theme will continue. For what it's worth, my guess is Woods will be very tough at Hoylake and Valhalla.