Woods on his way back with win at Memorial, though doubters remain

Woods on his way back with win at Memorial, though doubters remain

Tiger Woods matched Jack Nicklaus with his 73rd career PGA Tour victory on Sunday at the Memorial.

The bad news for the rest of the PGA Tour is that Tiger Woods isn't all the way back. Sure, he just won the Memorial for his second victory in his last five tournaments, and he closed with a 67, and he hit that chip on the 16th hole Sunday that reminded me of absolutely nothing I have ever done in my life. But he didn't putt very well at the Memorial. He hasn't shown he can contend week after week. His game is thrilling but not yet complete.

The fourth-generation Tiger Woods superhero should arrive shortly. He probably won't dominate in quite the way he has in the past, because what he did in the past was ridiculous, and it's even more ridiculous to expect it. But within a year, I expect him to win another major and re-establish himself as the favorite every time he grabs a club.

This should not surprise us. Consider:

After winning the 1997 Masters, Woods completely re-made his swing. He did not win a major for another 28 months, before triumphing at the 1999 PGA and launching the best run of anybody's career.

Not long after winning the 2002 U.S. Open, Tiger started to struggle, and in March 2004, he hired Hank Haney as his coach. Thirteen months after hiring Haney, and 34 months after that '02 Open win, Woods won the Masters. It was the start of another wildly successful run.

In 2010, Tiger started working with another new coach, Sean Foley. Here they are, two years later.

We know this about Tiger. But this time, so many more people have doubted his ability to be great again. I understand that. He is older now. He has had four knee surgeries. His marriage was ruined by his wild putter. The public laughed at him, the media ripped him, and for the first time, most people rooted against him.

I have trouble getting my energy back after I fall asleep on the couch. So I can't imagine what it's like to come back from all that and be the best in the world at anything.

But this is Tiger Woods. The normal rules do not apply, and have never applied. They did not apply when he won three straight U.S. Junior Amateur titles, followed by three straight U.S. Amateur titles. They did not apply when he decimated the Masters field at age 21 or when he won four straight majors — matching Phil Mickelson's career total in a 10-month span.

This is what I find interesting about the last two years of doubts: The biggest skeptics seemed to be people paying close attention. You would think it would be the opposite — that the people who saw Tiger do so many great things in the past, who followed his previous swing changes, would understand it could happen again.

I think this is the risk of watching too closely. Sometimes we really can see too much.

Suppose you planted flowers with the idea that they would blossom in the spring. Imagine you planted them in the summer or fall or whenever you were supposed to plant them, then went on vacation until spring. (I recommend the Caribbean, though I love Europe, too. Enjoy yourselves, readers. You deserve it.) When you came back after your vacation, you would probably see flowers blooming. And you would not be surprised. We all know this is how this is supposed to work.

But …

What if you stood over the flower bed the whole time? What if you stood there on Day 1 and saw nothing, and Day 2 and saw nothing, and Day 3 and saw nothing, and by Day 30 you still … saw nothing. What if you saw the ground covered in snow and coated with ice, and didn't see a single indication that a single flower might bloom? I don't know about you, but I would say, "These flowers will never grow, forget it, this is hopeless, and I'm hopeless, too, and the world is doomed, and WHY WHY WHY WHY?"

I think that is what happened with Tiger. He looked so bad, by his standards, that we forgot he was supposed to look bad by his standards. Then Haney wrote in his book that Tiger feared his driver, and another former coach, Butch Harmon, told the Wall Street Journal that Tiger looked "very robotic," and … well, it was easy to think they were right, and easy to forget these were Tiger's FORMER coaches. Of course they winced when Tiger changed the swings he helped them build.

Harmon's comment about Tiger looking robotic fit into the too-easy criticism of his current swing coach, Foley: That Foley, an expert in the physics of the golf swing, expects his players to all play the same way.

Well, Tiger probably did look robotic. Anybody who has ever tried to hit a golf ball while making a swing adjustment understands why.

Tiger's progression has been normal — slow, grueling, but normal. And there is more to come. He is only 120th on tour in approach shots from 100 yards in; I suspect that is because he has been working so hard to hone his driver and hasn't spent much time on his wedge shots. Now that the driver is ready, he can round out his game.

I understand there are still a lot of skeptics. Maybe it will be different this time. Maybe his putting won't come back. Maybe his new swing, which is easier on his knees, can't match up to the old swings. Maybe his knees won't hold up. Hey, any of that is possible. But even if I were a millionaire, I wouldn't bet 10 cents against Tiger Woods.