Tiger's back, but has anything really changed?

DORAL, Fla. -- The big news from the exciting world of math Wednesday was that Sergio Garcia could overtake Tiger Woods at the WGC-CA Championship at Doral Resort and Spa this week. The problem with the equation is that Garcia must win, and Woods must finish 27th or worse. That second part, on this golf course, is about as likely as an asteroid strike.
Plus there's the issue of the Woods/Garcia pecking order having long been established. One prominent Tour caddie summarized the conventional wisdom thusly: "If they get paired together, Sergio will melt."March9_woods_600x420

Which begs the question: Has anything changed in a meaningful way since Woods hit the DL last June?
This week's tournament, Tiger's first four-round event since he won the U.S. Open with a torn ACL in his left knee and a double stress fracture in his left tibia, will begin to answer that question. (Woods tees off Thursday at 11:25 a.m. Eastern.) The Tour is rebooting, and version 2.0 may look slightly different. It's possible the gap between Tiger and everyone else really has narrowed, but not for the reasons the math geeks would have you believe.
There is a small but talented group of players chasing Woods who, unlike Garcia, Phil Mickelson (world No. 3), Ernie Els (No. 15) and other veterans, have no experience losing to Woods.
The alpha dog from Isleworth, who played his practice round with Mike Weir on Wednesday (must be a W thing), has not yet established himself against 19-year-old Rory McIlroy, who since June has rocketed from 180th to 16th in the World Ranking.
Woods has never played with Dustin Johnson, 24, who has won twice and climbed to 38th in the world since Woods went under the knife on June 24. Geoff Ogilvy, the world No. 4, derailed the Woods Express here a year ago, stopping Tiger's five-tournament winning streak while doing the hardest thing in golf: playing with him.
While McIlroy may yet be too young and too deferential to upend Woods if he gets the chance anytime soon -- McIlroy's been a Tiger fan since boyhood, which is to say he's still a Tiger fan -- Ogilvy seems up to the challenge. He is so competitive, he said Wednesday, "If I'm on the treadmill in the gym, I'm going 1 mph faster than the guy next to me just because it annoys me if he's going faster."
It doesn't hurt that Ogilvy, like a certain someone, is getting into the habit of winning. He won the Mercedes Championship to open the season, and the WGC-Accenture Match Play, for the second time, two weeks ago.
Johnson, a 6-foot-4-inch Carolina bomber who can dunk a basketball with either hand, seems to have the right blend of outrageous length (he reached the par-5 opening hole in two, with a 9-iron, on Wednesday) and outrageous self-belief to hold up well against Woods.
"I've always been good," Johnson told me, when asked when he knew he was an exceptional talent. Okaaaay.
Johnson will need to figure out his irons from inside about 140 yards to thrive should he find himself in Tiger's airspace, but he certainly doesn't lack for the contender's swagger. Anthony Kim, 23, who has risen from 19th to 11th in the world in Tiger's absence, displays the same kind of brash, bulletproof exterior. Kim's game has been A.W.O.L. lately, but don't fret it. He has the gaudy skills, time is on his side and, despite the jokey, deferential Nike commercial that's all the rage, he wholeheartedly believes that when he's on, he's the greatest thing in spikes.
Forget about the points; it's going to take unshakeable self-belief to close the Tiger gap. Woods may or may not win this week, but he surely isn't going to finish 27th or worse. And it's beside the point. The Tour's young comers are good, no doubt. But are they scared?  Leaderboard: Follow Tiger's Thursday round | Tiger Tracker | Photos: Tiger's Practice Round   (Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images) 

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by Kevin Cunningham