Inside the Ropes: Tiger returns this week

Tom LaMarre, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange


Tiger Woods will be back on the PGA Tour this week for the Wells Fargo Championship, and if he plays well, the question of the year will be asked again.
Is he really back?
Over four days at the Masters, the answer went from emphatically yes at the beginning to maybe never again after he struggled to his worst finish as a pro at Augusta National, a tie for 40th.
That came two weeks after Woods seemed to be closer than ever to his old form, when he captured the Arnold Palmer Invitational by five strokes over Graeme McDowell to claim his first PGA Tour victory in more than two years.
What happens this week is anyone's guess, but this much is certain: Whatever Woods does will makes news 24-7.
The circumstances were much different, obviously, but Jack Nicklaus went through some of this late in his career, when he admittedly lost a little bit of interest at times.
Nicklaus had his growing business empire and always has been a family man, so there were times when his golf seemed to take a back seat.
Of course, when he had his droughts between major championships, like between 1967 and 1970, or 1975 and 1978, he didn't have to read about it night and day -- only four times a season when the majors rolled along.
The Golden One didn't really have anyone to chase the way Woods does, but when he would regain his interest and charge up the leaderboard in the majors, "Jack is Back" signs would pop up in the galleries.
Not only that, the crowds would start chanting that phrase, the way they did in 1980 at Baltusrol, when he captured his fourth and final U.S. Open title after another two-year drought.
When Sports Illustrated hit newsstands a few days later, the headline simply read: "Jack's Back."
That was the 16th of his eventual total of 18 victories in the Grand Slam events, a mark that seemed destined to fall when Woods captured the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in an 18-hole playoff for the ages against Rocco Mediate.
Woods earned his 14th major title on that epic Monday, and it seemed only a matter of time before the record would fall. But who could have imagined what has happened since?
Not only did his life, his swing and his body seem to be falling apart at the same time, but all the gory details were there for everybody and anybody to read about every single day on the Internet and in the tabloids. Even the mainstream media eventually had to join in.
Tiger seemed to have put all of that behind him early this season, and even some of his critics claimed that he seemed close to being back -- there's that word again.
Even though he didn't win, he was in contention while tying for third in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and tying for second in the Honda Classic, finishing two strokes behind Rory McIlroy by closing with an 8-under-par 62.
The "Tiger's Back" talk reached a crescendo when he won at Bay Hill and displayed the control he had at his zenith, seemingly unperturbed after he hit a ball out of bounds when a woman screamed during his backswing.
Then at Augusta, he came unraveled. The new swing nurtured by instructor Sean Foley was invaded by the old one taught him by Hank Haney, causing him to hit the ball all over Augusta National.
Woods cursed, he took huge divots out of the hallowed turf in anger after hitting bad shots and even kicked his 9-iron after hitting a poor tee shot on the 16th hole in the second round.
It wouldn't have been pretty even at the Quad Cities Open, but this was the Masters, after all.
"He has lost his game and lost his mind," CBS commentator Nick Faldo said.
While he was outwardly confident and relaxed while playing so well two weeks earlier at Bay Hill, Woods seemed to be on edge all week at Augusta.
With his game seemingly back, did he put too much pressure on himself? Was it physical or mental, or a combination? Was it the result of events on the course or off?
In the old days, it would not have mattered because Tiger never lost focus.
"He's still got a long road ahead of him, let's put it that way," McDowell said of what happened to Woods in the Masters.
Perhaps Tiger has to get complete control of himself before he can do the same with his golf ball, no matter how much work he puts in with Foley.
If he can't do that, maybe he won't ever really be back.

COMING UP
PGA TOUR: Wells Fargo Championship at the Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday through Sunday.
TV: Thursday and Friday, 3-7 p.m. EDT on the Golf Channel; Saturday and Sunday, 3-6 p.m. EDT on CBS.
LAST YEAR: Lucas Glover made a par on the first playoff hole to turn back Jonathan Byrd and claim the third victory of his PGA Tour career and first since the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black. Glover nursed a one-stroke lead down the stretch by finishing with three gutsy pars, sinking a 7-foot putt on the final hole to close with a 3-under-par 69. Byrd, the 36-hole leader, came along later to hole a 15-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole and close with a 72 and force extra holes. However, Byrd drove into a fairway bunker in the playoff and hit his approach into a hazard left of the green en route to a bogey, allowing Glover to end his winless streak at 41 tournaments by two-putting from 25 feet.

CHAMPIONS TOUR: Insperity Championship at the Woodlands Country Club in the Woodlands, Texas, Friday through Sunday.
TV: Friday, 6:30-8:30 p.m. EDT; Saturday, 6:30-9:30, and Sunday, 7-9:30 p.m. on the Golf Channel each day.
LAST YEAR: Brad Faxon, who won eight times on the PGA Tour, claimed his first victory on the senior circuit without hitting a shot on Sunday. Rain washed out the final round, and Faxon, who held a one-stroke lead over Tommy Armour III, was declared the winner. Faxon, whose previous victory came in the 2005 Buick Championship, was playing in his sixth event on the Champions Tour after turning 50 the previous August. He took the lead into the final round by shooting a bogey-free, 7-under-par 65 in windy conditions during the second round. Fax birdied the first three holes, later took the lead with a six-foot birdie putt on the 17th and holed a four-footer for par on the final hole.

LPGA TOUR: HSBC Brasil Cup at Itanhanga Golf Club in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 5-6.
TV: No live television in the United States.
LAST YEAR: Mariajo Uribe of Colombia, who played college golf at UCLA, carded five birdies in the first seven holes while shooting 6-under-par 66 in the final round to capture the unofficial 36-hole event by one stroke over Lindsey Wright of Australia, who played at Pepperdine. The tournament is being played for the fourth consecutive year to enhance interest for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, where golf will be an official event for the first time since 1904.