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Babineau: Tiger Woods at it again as PGA Championship draws near

MOSEL, Wis. – An hour or so down the road from Whistling Straits, Tiger Woods hit his very first shot as a professional. It was nearly two decades ago, 1996, and he was fresh off his third U.S. Amateur title when he arrived to the now-departed Greater Milwaukee Open. That didn’t change the fact he was so nervous that his driver that day felt like an anvil in his hands.

Woods said he felt calm when he placed his ball on the tee, took a practice swing, walked to the ball, waggled once and looked down the fairway. When his eyes met his ball again, he felt the suddenly immense weight of the club (“I could hear my heart pound,” he said). Finally, Woods came to the solution most fearless 20-year-olds would: he’d simply swing as hard as he could. The ball sailed 300 yards down the fairway. Hello, World, indeed.

Two hours from here, at this very tournament, the PGA Championship, Woods won at Medinah outside Chicago in 1999, outlasting a young bouncing buck whom we’d never before met: one Sergio Garcia from Spain. On the penultimate hole that Sunday, Woods made a birdie that bounded across green spray-painted dirt and still magically found the bottom of the hole. He won by one. It “really propelled me into the 2000s and my early part of my career,” he said.

Medinah wasn’t Woods’ first major – he’d already wowed us with a 12-shot victory at the 1997 Masters – but it proved to be a huge springboard for him, validation that the many changes he’d made with Butch Harmon to polish his game even after such a huge romp at Augusta had taken hold, and would suit him for a longer haul. Medinah would start his best major run; he’d seize five more in his next 10 major starts.

That was so, well, then. And here we are again, summer 2015, Tiger once again the chameleon trying to figure out what shade to be next. At the 97th PGA, the 18th in which he has competed, there’s certainly an awkwardness to hearing him speak about his game and exactly where he’s at – a distinct “we’ve been here before, have we not?” flavor. No offense to Tiger, but at times, to hear him speak in a mass interview is no different than watching a string get pulled from the belly of a puppet, the same answers summoned from an internal speed-dial mechanism, as if he’s removing familiar books from a living-room shelf, mixed in with a few obligatory uses of the word “hence” and one or two “It is what it is” statements. You know the conversation. It’s work. It’s fun. I’m progressing. It’s a process. I love the competition but just need to be more consistent.

The takeaway: He’s just trying to get better. He’ll get there. And he will win again.

His words. The last part, you’d like to simply nod and accept. He has the track record (79 victories, including 14 majors) to earn the benefit of the doubt, no? I mean, Tiger Woods, NOT winning golf tournaments again? That sounds absolutely preposterous. This is a guy who once collected trophies the way navy blue blazers pick up lint.

But there are no guarantees in this difficult game, and there is a cloud hovering, is there not? The odometer keeps spinning, same frantic pace as always, and now we are two years removed from Woods winning anything, and seven years and two months away from winning any of those big trophies that really matter to him. Plus, these days, he has so many distractions that help to soothe the wounds of playing poorly. Good distractions. Time with the kids. Why, his new restaurant opened in South Florida just last night. And he may even build a golf course in India. All those “other” things he didn’t have so long ago, when there was golf, and winning, and well, more golf and winning.

Woods cannot tell you exactly what his world ranking is these days. “I know I’m in the 200s somewhere,” he said Tuesday. “But as far as paying attention to it, no. I’m just trying to get up there where I can win tournaments, get my game organized so I can be consistent … where I’m going to give myself a chance to win each and every event I play in.”

When he was that 20-year-old fledgling pro teeing it up at Milwaukee in 1996, that was plan. He’d tie for 60th that week and earn $2,544, but in his heart, he really did believe he could win. And soon we’d all learn why he thought so robustly. He may hear those same voices now, but sadly, when he pushes “play” on the machine, we get a different movie. It’s Sinatra forgetting his lyrics. Too bad. Could you imagine what it’d be like suddenly to have young Jordan Spieth, World No. 1 Rory McIlroy and fan favorite Rickie Fowler up near the top, only to have Tiger Woods join the fray once more? It would be big for golf. Exciting. Seismic.

But right now, here amid the open cornfields of Wisconsin, where once there was so much promise and potential, there are no fields of dreams. Those glory days, sadly, seem so far away. On one hand, your brain tells you that Tiger Woods isn’t really the 278th-best player in the world, some Average Joe sandwiched between Michael Hoey and Thanyakorn Khrongpha. But then your heart chimes in with this: Do you really give him a fighting chance this week, at a place where foul balls instantly can lead to huge numbers? Nobody loves proving doubters wrong more than Tiger Woods, but as much as he wants to, he cannot just flip a switch and be the player he once was. It’s no different than an aging Muhammad Ali years ago being pushed around in the ring by tomato cans he’d crush in his prime. Time can be dastardly and unsympathetic in that regard. It moves on, with or without us.

Woods was asked what holds him back most these days, and his answer was “consistency.” But here’s the rub: That consistency of which he speaks, and is working so hard to achieve? As a game, let’s hope real hard that the current No. 278 in the world hasn’t already found it.

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