Tiger returns to Jack's place at the crossroads of his career

DUBLIN, Ohio — The old man loosened his neck enough to play nine holes for charity Wednesday. The "impinging, tightening and spasming" of the muscles, as he described it, had muted sufficiently for him to make a decent swing. "I got range of motion again," he said. "It's a little bit sore after a good day of practice, but I can recover for the next day, which is good."

Then Tiger Woods excused himself to prepare for the Skins Game at the Memorial Tournament.

He is 34 and surveying the epic wreck of his own train. When Woods says of the Memorial, which he has won four times, "It would be nice to get four rounds in and be in contention" he isn't lobbing false modesty. His marriage is on the rocks, his swing coach is history and until the last several days, his neck was killing him. He's as mortal as we're likely to see him.

This week, Woods has even become something of a nostalgic figure. Media ask him about the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, which Woods won by a record 15 strokes. He answers that he isn't that player now, and never will be again. "I can't make that swing anymore," Woods says. "I don't have the speed. I'm getting older."

It's not self doubt, exactly. Woods doesn't do self doubt. It seems more of a wondering: When will my mind clear and my body heal? Will the bad-news buzz subside? When will I be Tiger Woods again?

Tiger, at a crossroads?

"Life is moving forward," Woods said. "The last six months have been pretty tough. I'm just now starting to play golf again and get into my routine. Which is something I haven't done in a long time."

Jack Nicklaus judged Tuesday that golfers attain their primes between the ages of 32 and 37. "After I won when I was 40 (the U.S. Open and the PGA, in 1980), I didn't work real hard. It just wasn't a priority. My kids were growing up (and) getting involved in different things. (I was) more interested in that than doing my own deal."

Life intervened for Nicklaus. Same with Woods, only in an entirely different way. The difference might be that while Nicklaus took comfort from his family and his thriving course design business, Tiger's peace is between the ropes.

He hasn't played in a month, since quitting after six holes at the Players Championship. The neck problem "could have been anything," Woods said. The problem arose before the Masters, and got worse. "The headaches were unreal at times," he said.

Woods couldn't make a decent backswing or follow through. He feared the worst, a bulging disc that could have required surgery. That wasn't the case, just an inflamed joint, which has been tamed with rest, ice and "tedious workouts," Woods said. "The past five or six days I've been going at it pretty good."

So here he is, at The Memorial, Jack's tournament, chasing Jack's legacy, wondering where the next phase of his career will take him. How long have we assumed Woods would surpass Nicklaus' record 18 major titles? How long since we started guessing the year it would occur?

It's not as inevitable as it was, even a year ago. Life intervenes, not always kindly. Phil Mickelson is one win away from being No. 1 in the world, and he's already No. 1 in the hearts of fans. Woods has won 14 major titles, four fewer than Nicklaus, but none since the 2008 U.S. Open. He's still in his prime. He's playing the Opens, U.S. and British, on courses where he has dominated, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews. Is Woods poised for a big summer? A return to being Tiger Woods?

Not even Tiger Woods can say.

"I've just got to be more patient with myself, because I haven't played," he said. "I've played nine competitive rounds all year. I need to bring it out here. Once you bring it out here, you've got to bring it to a major championship (then) to the major championship on a Sunday, on the back nine."

For now, he's playing in a skins match on a Wednesday, in front of several thousand entirely positive and polite Midwesterners. They didn't pay their $30 to pass moral judgment. Woods' golf cocoon is secure here.

He's hoping his neck holds up and his mind is free enough to dictate some decent shots. The once and perhaps future king is taking it one day at a time now. Just like the rest of us.

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