With clock ticking on his legacy, Woods embarks on comeback attempt

With clock ticking on his legacy, Woods embarks on comeback attempt

Tiger Woods did not win a tournament in 2010, the first winless season of his career.
Fred Vuich/SI

Some guy dressed up as Tiger Woods in Southern California last month — the bright-red shirt, the black slacks, the Nike swooshes. As if he could become The Man with 71 Tour wins, 14 majors, by dint of color combining. It was cute, and reminded us of a bygone era, 2000-'09.

"Tiger Woods," whoever he was, was hitting fairways and greens, sweeping in putts at the Chevron Challenge at Sherwood Country Club, near L.A., giving an Oscar-worthy performance for three days. What exposed him as a fraud in the end was that he coughed up a four-stroke Sunday lead and lost to Graeme McDowell in sudden death.

Nice try, pro.

Everyone knows the real Woods would never have done that. He's 11-1 in playoffs. The last playoff he lost in an official PGA Tour event was in 1998, to Billy Mayfair at Valencia, in the Clinton era.

We hear reports that the real Tiger is out there, maybe grooving his new swing under the eyes of his new coach, Sean Foley, maybe working by himself. Woods is expected to continue using a new putter, the Nike Method, after achieving immortality with his old Scotty Cameron. He is newly single, knocking around his remodeled estate on Florida's Intracoastal Waterway, and it's an open secret that he will show up for this week's Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines with a new bag sponsor, the first sponsor to come to him, instead of run away, in about a year.

Like we did last year, we still hold out hope for his return, this time at San Diego's famous seaside muni. Woods has won there seven times as a pro, including the 2008 U.S. Open. When all eyes focus on Tiger Woods as he places his Nike atop a tee Thursday, will it really be him?

And what about the history, the legacy? What about his long-stated goal of reaching the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, and then going beyond into uncharted territory?

Maybe the beginning of the end for Woods came well before the Great Unraveling of his image, when he gave up a two-stroke lead to Y.E. Yang on Sunday at the 2009 PGA.

Or maybe Woods still has one big burst of magic left to show to the world. If you're into excellence, you hope for it.

Jack has never wavered in his belief that Tiger would break the record, but even he has to be wondering now. Tiger's been stuck at 14 majors for 30 months. Because of his left knee, which has been sliced open four times, and his personal crisis, which no amount of triage could salve, he has played one full season in three years.

"Pebble Beach and St. Andrews [are] important golf courses for him," Nicklaus told the AP last June. "He basically won on those fairly easily through the years. If he has problems with those golf courses, sure, they won't come around for a while. Maybe it might be tougher."

Well, he had problems. Now, this week, he's back in San Diego, which has been such a safe haven for Woods that it ought to be renamed the Tiger's Insurance Open. He hasn't played there since beating Rocco Mediate in 19 extra holes at the '08 Open, missing the '09 Buick Invitational because he was resting his left knee, post-op, and then — well, you know.

As the Farmers took flight last year, Woods was in hiding. Strip clubs hired airplanes to trail tacky banners (We miss you Tiger! Deja Vu Showgirls), and there were "Tiger" sightings all over the place. He was hitting golf balls in the dark at Bay Hill. He was at the mansion of a friend in Long Island, N.Y., or in Sweden, or at sea, or in plastic surgery. It was as if he'd switched publicists from IMG to David Blaine.

When Woods finally reappeared, in front of those blue curtains at the TPC McClubhouse in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., he looked different. He was chastened, apologizing, flawed. And when he finally returned to golf, at the Masters in April, he looked different again. He wore dark glasses. He fatted a shot with a wood. But he was our Tiger. Asked on camera about his respectable tie for fourth, he gave the usual terse reply that he'd still lost.

Yep, it was Woods.

Or was it? Maybe it was just the opening act from the same imposter we saw giving it up to McDowell, the same guy who went the entire 2010 season without winning a major or any tournament at all. This is what we remember from 2010 — the dissonance of such absolute stink emanating from an absolute master, as if Martin Scorsese had given us Piranha 3D. How could this happen?

"Tiger Woods" shot 74-79 to miss the cut at the Wells Fargo, and he tied for 78th place, 30 strokes behind winner Hunter Mahan, at the WGC-Bridgestone at Firestone, where he'd won seven times. It was the worst Tiger impersonation since that guy on SNL with the golf club around his head.

And yet he teased us more than once, and we thought that maybe it was really him, that maybe he'd returned. There was the day he shot 66 in the third round of the U.S. Open, and the first-round 65 he fired at the Barclays after we'd learned that the real Tiger's divorce had become official. There was the Ryder Cup beat-down of Francesco Molinari, as compelling a portrait of Tiger Woods as any. The guy went nine under in 12 holes, the best Tiger we'd seen since '09, when he won six times, copped his second FedEx Cup trophy and was Player of the Year for the 10th time.

Where has that Tiger gone? And will he ever return?

The tabloid feeding frenzy is over. Tiger's prodigious appetites no longer shock and awe, or interest us much at all, really. What a difference a year makes. He's 35, the clock is ticking on his golfing legacy, and as we await the biggest second act since Hogan's, there's only one thing on our minds.

Will the real Tiger Woods please stand up?

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