Tiger Woods is back: He's won two tournaments already this year, he's the favorite heading into the U.S. Open this week, and he's a leader for player-of-the-year honors.
Tiger Woods is not back: He hasn't won a major in four years (the 2008 U.S. Open, to be exact) and he didn't come close at this year's Masters.
Tiger Woods is back: Did you see that chip at 16 at the Memorial two weekends ago? Vintage Tiger!
Tiger Woods is not back: He sure isn't putting like Vintage Tiger.
So is Tiger Woods back? That question has no answer, and that's a good thing. The best thing, in fact. Because Woods is creating conversation in a way he hasn't in years. That means the sport of golf is creating conversation in a way it hasn't in years.
Is Tiger Woods back? He's back just enough.
We'll never see the original Woods again, and that's a shame, but there was a problem with that Tiger. He was a robot, so unstoppable that the other golfers on Tour looked silly by comparison. Every major was "Tiger" or "Field." Well, Woods is still a robot, but he's a robot that could go haywire. And that makes him even more watchable than before.
In his prime, the debate was whether anyone could beat him on a given weekend. Now Woods can beat himself, with bafflingly bad swings, with poor putting, even with his own temper. We saw all that at the Masters, and some wondered if Woods was "done" as prematurely as he was deemed "back" after his breakthrough win at Bay Hill in March. Woods was dreadful, mediocre and outstanding at The Players Championship, depending on when you watched. (There was even a sense he might withdraw to avoid missing the cut.) And then he was stellar at The Memorial. You can make equally valid cases for and against him at the U.S. Open.
For: He's got his new swing working, he's got momentum, and he's less liable to crumble in the heat of battle than any other golfer.
Against: This is, above all, a tournament for putters, and Woods hasn't shown the old form yet. Also, nearly half of his 73 career PGA wins have come on the same few courses, and Olympic Club isn't one of them.
We're at equilibrium with Woods, in that both the pros and the cons have plenty of ammo. That's the perfect place to be. Sports are, more than ever, about the debate and the drama, and this new Woods brings both in equal measure. He has transformed from a known known, in the old Donald Rumsfeld phraseology, into a known unknown. And that's captivating.
A decade ago, you'd tune in to see Woods clobber some fools. Now, this weekend, you'll watch in part because you don't know what to expect. Woods could clobber or be clobbered. He could clobber himself. He could get clobbered and then come back to make the fools pay. That's what happened at the Memorial, and CBS got a 138-percent ratings spike over the year before. At one point Sunday, as Woods made his charge, ratings spiked even higher. That's not because Woods is back; it's because Woods is almost back. There's a huge difference.
That's why the Memorial changed this ongoing discussion. The victory at Bay Hill was impressive but not awe-inspiring. Woods got a lead at what used to be his home course, and he held on. There was more relief than anything. But at Muirfield, with Jack Nicklaus watching every stroke, Woods had that look again. He seemed more bold than tentative, which was the look he showed often at Bay Hill. He showed he could overpower the course and the field in the way we all remember.
And yet …
He didn't beat anyone that daunting on that final day. Rory Sabbatini and Spencer Levin are not Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy. Rickie Fowler was tied with Woods heading into Sunday, but he hasn't learned how to close tournaments. And no offense to Graeme McDowell, but he wasn't a huge obstacle at Bay Hill. So even though Jim Nantz announced Tiger is "back," we still await the emphatic punctuation mark. We still await the major win.
That makes this weekend special in a way previous U.S. Opens have not been. At Bay Hill in March, several golf pundits were almost giddy, saying the 2012 Masters would be the most anticipated since Woods was in his early 20s. Because we didn't get conclusive answers about Woods at Augusta, that makes this U.S. Open even more enticing. If Woods wins, it will be a major victory that will rank with Torrey Pines in 2008 – which he won on a shredded knee – and that was perhaps the most amazing U.S. Open 'ever.
The best part of all this is the looming possibility that Woods might just complete a return trip from self-imposed hell. A major victory would cause us to look back at his climb from shame and look forward to every major tournament from now until 2015 (and possibly beyond). At this point in history, Jack Nicklaus is unquestionably the best golfer of all time. But if Woods somehow wins five more majors, that view may change. Woods' return to greatness would be a story for the ages.
After all, Nicklaus was rarely a newsmaker off the course. He certainly wasn't despised the way Woods is in some circles. Golf is an extremely athlete-friendly sport – annoyingly so, really – but Woods has had to deal with resentment that most great golfers, surrounded by Dockers-wearing backslappers, never do. A prime example came earlier this season when Woods was asked by Golf Channel reporter Alex Miceli about his former swing coach's tell-all book. Woods snapped back: "You're a piece of work." That was not exactly a classy reply, but how many other golfers have to deal with questions about off-the-course topics?
Woods was even asked after his victory at the Memorial if the old Tiger Woods is back. Even when he wins, he's compared to a version of his former self. Woods, who is rarely charming in interviews, had a zinger for an answer. He said he was maybe not the old Tiger Woods, but an older Tiger Woods. Then he laughed and repeated his now-cliché response: "It's a process."
The process is fascinating – as fascinating as anything we've seen in golf since Woods broke through at such a young age. And now there is the backdrop of other golfers also trying to break through. Woods is fighting against his old self, but also against a very strong field of younger stars. It's not just Tiger and Phil, which was fun but ultimately unsatisfying. Every week on tour feels as if someone else is right there at the doorstep, ready to rise to power and not look back. There is McIlroy, Fowler, Bubba Watson, Luke Donald and even Dustin Johnson as of this past weekend. (Don't forget Jason Dufner, who has as many tour wins this year as Woods.) The wait for the next Tiger Woods goes on alongside the wait for the return of the first Tiger Woods.
But there is no next Tiger Woods. And there is no first Tiger Woods. There's only this Tiger Woods, irrevocably flawed but indisputably watchable. He's more human now, which makes him both easier to criticize and easier to identify with. He could be headed for catastrophe or on the precipice of averting it completely, but every round feels climactic.
Tiger Woods has seen better days. But the Tiger Woods drama has not.
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