Tiger Woods was asked about being "back" at his press conference at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill on Wednesday. Specifically, he was asked if he needed to win a major, something he hasn't done since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, in order to be considered all the way "back" to his old self.
"I think that's based on opinion," Woods said with a smile.
Woods is back, okay? He's about as back as he could possibly be, so back you couldn't overstate it with a Chris Berman ESPN home run call ("back, back, back, back, back, back, back, back…") He's back in control of his game, with two wins already in 2013, and back in control of his destiny. With another victory this week, which would be his eighth at Bay Hill, Woods would reclaim the No. 1 ranking from the suddenly fragile-looking Rory McIlroy, who is taking the week off.
"To get back to number one I just gotta win this week," said Woods, who dropped all the way to 58th in the world by Nov. 6, 2011. "Not too complicated."
Woods is back in control of his personal life, too. He and Olympic gold-medalist skier Lindsey Vonn released photos of themselves on Facebook earlier this week, two stars looking blissfully in love, their photos and statements making public the worst-kept secret in sports.
"We're very happy with where we're at," Woods said when asked why they came out as a couple. "But also we wanted to limit the stalker-azzi and the sleazy websites that are out there. I've been in situations that are dangerous to my kids."
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Woods is also back in control of his health. His tender left knee, which has been operated on four times, is not an issue, nor are his fragile Achilles tendons. On Wednesday he called his physical ailments from recent years, along with swing fixes he was trying to make with instructor Sean Foley, "the perfect storm." That storm has passed. Woods is no longer missing tournaments and even major championships, as he did after his knee was rebuilt in 2008, and he's no longer missing practice time.
"One record that will never be broken is Jack's major streak of just playing in the events," Woods said. "If you even play in twenty or thirty majors you've had a pretty darn good career. And what did he play, 146 [as a pro]? It's crazy, isn't it? … I just needed to get healthy. Once I got healthy and could practice properly, I felt I would be able to implement the swing changes that Sean was teaching and I could get back there [to the top of the game]."
Woods is back as golf's headliner until McIlroy rediscovers his mojo, and maybe even after that. Two years ago no one was talking about Sam Snead's 82 career wins, or Nicklaus's 18 career major victories, the twin pillars of golfing immortality on the PGA Tour. Now, though, Woods is back prowling for both marks, having won five Tour events in the last 12 months to climb to 76 career victories. Still at 14 majors, Woods will be "back" as the big favorite at the Masters, April 11-14.
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Woods admitted Wednesday that he took his health for granted; he assumed he would forever be privileged to play a full schedule. He took for granted that he would always be in control of his life, no matter how complicated it got. Then he lost his father, to cancer; he lost his health; he lost containment on a string of extramarital affairs; and finally, under the weight of all that, he lost his golf game.
Is Woods "back" from all that? Yes, and in a big way.
In his smart white shirt with orange trim, he was the picture of composure behind the microphone Wednesday at Bay Hill, just as he looked at ease at Doral two weeks ago. He sat through the clunky questions as patiently as he did the well-crafted ones, just as he has begun to react with more equanimity to his rare bad shots.
Wednesday he pontificated about Palmer's inclusion in his new video game ("pretty cool"); U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson's decision to cut captain's picks from four to three (Woods had no opinion on what it might mean for 2014); and on Palmer's inability to compel new Florida resident McIlroy to play Bay Hill. ("Some of the guys are taking this week off and then playing two in a row in Texas to get ready for the Masters," Woods said. "It's a different schedule this year.")
True, Woods hasn't won a major in nearly five years, and amazingly he hasn't won a green jacket since 2005. Sometimes he has pressed, such as at Augusta in 2006, which he knew would be the last major his ailing father would ever see. Woods finished that year in a five-way tie for third, three strokes behind winner Phil Mickelson, and said Wednesday the result "hurt the most of any tournament that I have failed to win."
That was a tasty morsel for the sportswriters. So was the confirmation that Woods is dating Vonn, even though we already knew that. The World No. 2 can afford to make such revelations because he's back in control of the narrative, just as he's back in control of his health, his game, his life.
Is Tiger back? If your view is, "Not until he wins his 15th major," well, fair enough. But look at him smiling in those pictures with an effervescent Vonn, and once again racking up Tour wins by multiple-shot margins, and ask the question again.