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Something you've probably noticed over the last 18 months with Tiger Woods is, golf isn't meant to be played when you've got all the worry in the world surrounding you. Worried about his life, worried about the way he's perceived, worried about his health and more importantly, worried about his career, Tiger now versus Tiger then are two completely different beings.
But for some reason, this comeback, the second of 2011, seems real. He's got new shoes, a new caddie, but more importantly, both legs working perfectly for him for the first time since 2008, at least according to the man that changed golf more than a decade ago.
The thing is, Firestone Country Club isn't the place we will be shown that Tiger is back. Sure, a win would recreate the way we look at him, and wouldn't get questions like this posed on Twitter, but there are four trophies that matter to the man turning 36 in December and none of them start with the letters "WGC."
LeBron James can win as many MVP awards as his trophy case will hold, but he'll only be remembered for rings. Same with Peyton Manning. The same can be said for Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and as it appears now, Rory McIlroy. Every so often a person comes along that makes exceptional expectations seem ordinary. Average 26 points a game. Throw for 4,000 yards. Win four golf tournaments a year.
Those goals aren't for those few special athletes that can be remembered by a single name. They aren't for the Jacks and the Toms and the Tigers of the golf world. Those men were and will always be measured only on green jackets, Claret Jugs or Wanamakers.
For Tiger, this week is just a stepping stone to yet another notch on his major belt, hoping that his incredible run at a record most thought was insurmountable might still have a faint heartbeat left in it.
The problem for Tiger is, most critics don't think it's obtainable anymore.
Next week will tell us a lot. When Nicklaus was 35, and playing his last major of the year, he was at 13 majors, but a win there got him to 14, the number Tiger currently sits at, and over the next 11 years, Jack landed four more, including the unexpected Masters at 46. If Tiger can't claim his 15th in a week in Atlanta, it will be the first time Tiger was actually tied with Jack age-wise, and with all the lingering doubt about injuries and other things, it sure seems that Nicklaus was in a better place back then than Tiger will be now.
But the strange thing with Woods is, we can't seem to count him out. No matter that in two Sundays from now, if Tiger headed back to Florida without an extra piece of luggage it would be the 14th major championship in a row without Woods' name engraved, a streak Nicklaus never hit until his 40s. No matter that the last time he was in the final group of a major he got beaten by a man nobody had ever heard of, and it came for the first time with Tiger leading after 54 holes. No matter that he hasn't even won a regular tour event since '09, and yet the clock continues to roll on. None of those things matter, because somewhere inside us we all know that there is magic there, and true magic never disappears.
On Thursday, Tiger will be paired with the latest surprise major champion. He will be out there with the latest hero of a country to raise a major trophy, and it'll still be the Tiger Show, no matter how much his haters can't stand it. But this isn't the event he should have his eye on anymore. He's won this thing enough. For some champions, learning how to walk can once again be a priority. Tiger's knee is finally healthy. Let's hope after the walking, he can remember how to run.
- Tiger Woods