Season preview: Is Tiger back or teasing us?

Tiger Woods will open his season in Abu Dhabi, with his first U.S. tournament coming in February at Pebble Beach.

Tiger Woods will open his season in Abu Dhabi, with his first U.S. tournament coming in February at Pebble Beach.

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Consider the highlight film. It could begin with the 12-stroke victory at Augusta National or the historic, 15-stroke romp at Pebble Beach. Those four consecutive major triumphs would be prominent, and for individual spectacles, there was the improbable bunker shot to win the Canadian Open, the impossible chip beside the 16th green at the 2005 Masters, the second shot to Firestone’s 18th that soared through darkness and landed next to the flagstick.

There would be an endless array of material for one reason.

“There may never be anything like it again,” Brad Faxon said. “The clutch shots, the heroics in the biggest tournaments. We’d never seen that before, not with such dramatic flair.”

So it follows that when the film would melt into where the story has been – the personal-life meltdown, the two-year victory drought, the injuries, the tabloidish landscape, the 79 at Quail Hollow, the T-78 at Firestone, the 42 over nine holes at TPC Sawgrass, the shots into water and sand en route to a 77 at Atlanta Athletic Club – well, the interest level would level off, no?

Curtis Strange disagrees.

In many ways, Tiger Woods – warts, scratchy golf, work-in-progress swing and all – is more fascinating as he enters 2012 than the one who established incomparable dominance, rewrote record books and was more immortal than mortal.

Strange felt that way before Woods rekindled some familiar magic and won the Chevron World Challenge Dec. 4, his first victory in more than two years. What Woods did to beat Zach Johnson by one – a scintillating birdie-birdie finish – only breathes life into what is clearly golf’s top story.

Does it signal liftoff for Woods? Or should excitement be tempered, given that it was an 18-player exhibition? That seems to be the glory of the story.

“I’m the same way as everyone else,” Strange said. “We want to watch more than ever. We want to see Tiger Woods play. Maybe it’s for a different reason. Now we wonder, ‘Can he come back? Can he beat this guy?,’ whereas before we watched just to see how much he finally won by.”

So maybe Woods at age 36 isn’t the foregone conclusion he once was, back in those 11 seasons (1999-2009) when he won 64 times in 190 PGA Tour starts, a mind-boggling .337 winning percentage.

“You know how good Tiger Woods was? He made us forget about Jack Nicklaus,” Strange said. “He won half his majors by lapping the field.”

Added John Cook: “That was a Hall of Fame career in itself. There was nobody like him.”

Yet Cook doesn’t consider Woods a reclamation project, rather a heavyweight contender with plenty left in the tank. Even as the media wildly embrace the youth of three 2011 major winners – Rory McIlroy (22), Charl Schwartzel (26) and Keegan Bradley (25) – the reality is, Woods is still in prime time. Darren Clarke, 42, won the Open Championship last summer, and of the 14 major championships since Woods last won a big one (2008 U.S. Open), half have gone to players 36 or older. Consider also that 25 of the past 100 major championships have been won by a player at least 36 years old and maybe, just maybe, you’re hedging on that bet against Woods surpassing Nicklaus.

Woods seemingly ended 2011 with his confidence higher than it has been in two years.

“No question in my mind,” Cook said. “You saw it in his eyes (at the Presidents Cup). That was the guy we used to see. The players out here who might have stopped thinking that this guy could come back? Well, they might see what can happen.”

As for the outspoken critics in the media, Cook shakes his head.

“I watch it and listen to it on TV,” said Cook, “and I cringe. I say, ‘I cannot believe this guy is saying this; it just doesn’t make any sense at all.’ That there’s only one way to swing a club, that you fall for a year-and-a-half and next thing you know, you’re done and out.

“Not only does it frustrate me; sometimes it disgusts me that people just give up on a guy like that so fast.”

Faxon agrees that the criticism has been excessive. To those who question why Woods would change a thing in his once-flawless game, Faxon said, “What drives great players is that they’re never satisfied. Great players think differently than the rest of the world.”

Then he paused.

“We all have a wish list of what we’d like to see him do or what we think he should do – show more humility, play more, stuff like that,” Faxon said. “But I don’t think any of us don’t think he won’t do whatever he has to do to play great golf again. And I’m still a believer that Tiger Woods will get to the top.”

Here, however, is a philosophical question: Which top?

Another galaxy, as Woods once knew it, back in 1999-2009, when he averaged 5.82 wins per year and won 31 percent of the major championships (13 of 42) in which he played?

Or the top as it exists for mere mortals, i.e., winning a few tournaments a year and maybe a major?

To explain the difference between the two, consider the 2011 PGA Tour season turned in by Luke Donald: two victories and $6,683,214 in earnings. All the credit to the Englishman, but Woods 11 times in his career has won at least four times in a season and has thrice topped $10 million in a campaign.

In other words, Donald – the current World No. 1 – can only dream of being where Woods once was. So, the question is: If Woods can’t ascend to his previous heights, can he be happy being where Donald and others now reside?

“That’s not a concern of mine,” Woods said. “My concern is winning golf tournaments and being prepared to win, something I haven’t been able to do for a while.”

Pressed further, Woods – forever No. 1, but now ranked 21st – said he can dominate again.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough to have done it for a decade, so there’s nothing wrong with doing it again.”

Strange, who in 1988 and ’89 became the first man since Ben Hogan in 1950-51 to win back-to-back U.S. Opens and knows a thing or two about Everest-like climbs, said, “I don’t think he’ll dominate again, but he’ll win again.”

And he reminded that Woods has plenty of motivation.

“He could still possibly break Jack’s (Nicklaus) record (18 majors; Woods is at 14), and I’m curious to see if he can break Sam Snead’s record (82 wins; Woods is at 71). He might surprise us all. I hope he does. I want to see how tough he is.”

• • •

Dr. Bill Mallon can peer in at the Woods saga from a variety of angles.

As a renowned orthopedic surgeon, Mallon certainly is qualified to question the health issue.

“I would guess he’s got at least mild arthritis in that left knee,” Mallon said. “He can’t drive down into the shot, and he probably can’t practice as much as he used to.”

A one-time standout at Duke who played a few seasons on the PGA Tour, Mallon remains a student of the game.

“I don’t know if he’s the greatest player of all time,” he said. “A lot of people will say Nicklaus, but I’m still a Hogan guy. But I’d say Woods is the greatest scorer ever, considering some of the places he had to play from.”

But Mallon wonders whether years of that double dose of strain – too much pressure on the knee and too much pressure on short-game magic – finally could be taking its toll. What if the putts that once fell continue not to fall? What if he doesn’t win in 2012? What if he doesn’t rediscover that level of excellence to which he had become accustomed?

“Good questions,” Mallon said. “We’ll see how much drive he has. You wonder if he’ll say, ‘That’s it.’ I think the window is only a couple of years. He’s an old 36. He’ll be an old 40.”

That’s why Strange suggests that “without a doubt, this is a huge year for Tiger Woods. He needs to show the masses.”

To that extent, Faxon saw the Presidents Cup as the perfect remedy. Getting picked by captain Fred Couples “was the kick he needed, the boost he had been looking for,” Faxon said. “I think he needed the camaraderie, to be with his peers to make golf fun again.”

Cook, an unabashed Woods friend and loyalist, was at Royal Melbourne and confirms Faxon’s sentiments. The team week was a positive experience, one that Woods can carry into 2012. His ballstriking at the Presidents Cup, as it was the week before at the Australian Open, was very good, and though he may not be quite the guy who 10 years ago was penciled into every preseason story for eight wins, including two majors, it was clear to Cook that Woods has progressed to a point where “he’s got the belief in what he’s doing, he’s healthy, he’s gaining more and more confidence.”

All of which translates into what? Several victories? A major? Two majors? Consistent contention?

Woods fielded the question as he stood with teammates near the 17th green at Royal Melbourne, their Presidents Cup celebration in full swing.

“Whatever happens, happens,” he said. “But I will be prepared this year.”

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