MARANA, Ariz. – Eventually it will stop. Tiger Woods cannot keep evolving into a better version of himself, like he's some computer program working out its kinks. A new swing here. A new physique there. A new knee for good measure. And voila: The Six Billion Dollar Golfer.
Something will happen. Age or drive or a mystery variable that no one would imagine, for to associate Tiger with anything but greatness is to call the Taj Mahal just some building.
Remember this, then, as he unleashes the newest incarnation of himself, with his rebuilt swing, physique and knee working in concert for the first time Wednesday at the Accenture Match Play: This Tiger, so physically, mentally and emotionally sound, should be the best yet – and the best he'll ever be, too.
Granted, any number of fools have engaged in such heresy and come to regret it. Tiger couldn't do better than 18-under at the Masters, right? OK. He won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 strokes. And those marked his peak moments until last June, when he limped along Torrey Pines with a double-stress-fracture-and-torn-ACL sandwich, and somehow prevailed to win the U.S. Open, his 14th major victory.
No one saw him for eight months as he rehabilitated from left knee surgery, and in that time it was fair to wonder: What more? Woods is 33. He has two kids. He's richer than entire nations. He has managed, despite being among the world's most recognized people, to maintain a Disney image, all the way down to his unnaturally white teeth.
When Woods emerged from his practice round Tuesday and flashed those pearls, the cameras clicked like mad, eager to capture the iconic shot of a Tiger smile. And from there it was business as usual, Tiger answering that very simple question – what more? – with a retort that gave the rest of the PGA Tour pros indigestion.
"I didn't think it would feel this good before the surgery or even just after the surgery because I hadn't known what it's like to feel this way," Woods said. "It's been so long. So to have it feel this healthy and this solid and secure, man, it's a great feeling."
"I feel a lot stronger in my left leg," he said. "Both legs have been stronger than they ever have been. Stability is something I haven't had in years. So it's nice to make a swing and not have my – as I've said before – my bones move."
"My short game has gotten a little bit better," Woods said. "I've got more shots than I did before, just because I've spent so much time on it, chipping and all the different shots around the greens. Some of the shots I had forgotten that I had over the years, I kind of remembered how to hit them again, which was kind of nice."
So just to recap: The greatest golfer the world has seen, who drives long and accurate, hits GPS-guided iron shots, putts with guile and skill and turns grown men into origami with his competitiveness, has done all this on a bad knee and with an inferior short game, both of which he shored up since we last saw him.
Well, then. At some point this becomes unfair, the chasm between Tiger and everyone else who dares to pick up a golf club. Though never will a golfer achieve perfection, Woods figures it can't hurt to try.
"Tiger's always trying to change," said Hank Haney, his swing coach. "He's always trying to make little improvements. He doesn't want to stay the same."
And there, perhaps, is the most impressive thing about Woods. His gift for golf is preternatural. Greatness called him. The question was whether he would answer, and he hasn't just lifted the receiver and whimpered a hello. He asked where and when and why and how, and he keeps asking today, when the motivation could've faded long ago.
Whatever Tiger's mission – his 19th major, more riches, a deeper legacy, changing the world – golf is his proxy. For now, the goals are shorter term. First he wants to beat Australian Brendan Jones in the first round. From there, it's winning tournaments. If he happens to reinvigorate golf – and the sport is in need of a good fix, its commissioner, Tim Finchem, joking that Tiger has been out "what, four, 4½ years now?" – all the better.
When über-Tiger tees off at 2:02 p.m. ET on Wednesday, the sports world will dissect the fashion in which his every fiber moves. He jumped on the dais after his practice round Tuesday, landed with a thud on his left leg and didn't flinch. No limp. No hitch in his swing. Nothing to fret.
Over time, Tiger will reveal whether this is his ultimate embodiment, whether the majors of the past will fade into sidebars and give way to the newest era. Everest beckons. And so the climb begins.