Tiger Not Quite Back but Getting Closer
By Stephanie Wei under Tiger Woods

Tiger, is that you?

I know there’s been endless chatter over whether or not Tiger Woods is “back” after he showed flashes of his former self at the Australian Open last week, but for purposes of discussion, I’ll share a few of my thoughts to kick off the conversation. First of all, I think the majority of people were thrilled to see Tiger atop the leaderboard again and were disappointed (yet not all that surprised) that he fell back down. (Contrary to what Mark Steinberg believes, the media — at least 98% — wants Tiger to play well, albeit perhaps for self-serving purposes.)

Tiger isn’t officially “back” until he wins at least one significant tournament (preferably a major; exhibitions like the Tavistock Cup don’t count) and contends nearly each time he tees it up in competition.

“I had the lead at Augusta (Masters) on the Sunday, that’s the last time I’ve been in that spot, so it’s been a long time,” Woods said in Sydney.

It feels longer than that. Probably because it’s been nearly two years since he hoisted a trophy. His last win came at the 2009 Australian Masters, which was a bittersweet trip since the National Enquirer found its smoking gun that led to the pesky fire hydrant getting in the way of Tiger’s Escalade and the ensuing sex scandal.

From what I saw last week, he appears to be getting closer. He could use some more work on his driving accuracy, but that’s nothing new. He’s got the stinger back in his bag. His irons looked solid. Most notable, his chipping was exponentially better than it has been of late, with the exception of Saturday when he shot 75 and left himself with 8-10 footers to save par, which he missed. No doubt putting is the weakest link of his game. I don’t believe he flubbed any really short ones that he’s been missing.

Tiger’s proved that he can post two consecutive good rounds, but he hasn’t reached the point of stringing together three in a row, and there’s a huge difference between two and four. But, as we know, it’s a process.

The former world No. 1 was very amicable for the majority of the week (except when he barked at photogs “Can you get the hell out of the way?” during the third round). After he posted a three-over 75 on Saturday, he waited patiently for the interviewer and then politely gave decent answers, considering he couldn’t have been thrilled about his score. Oh, and get this — he even stayed around for the trophy ceremony after placing third! All of which has led me to this conclusion: Australia is Tiger’s prozac. But don’t forget that he has three million other good reasons to go out of his way and smile for the cameras.

Conor raised a valid question — “Show me a great player, even a good player, who lost his ability to putt under pressure and regained it.”

Tom Watson? Nope. Remember the 12-footer he yipped on the 72nd hole at the ’09 British Open?

Another point Conor brought up: The tournaments he may win will never again be Tiger’s to lose. In other words, he’s ordinary. Even while he was making a late charge Sunday, I didn’t sense a pre-hydrant-era aura — that’s something I don’t believe he’ll regain.

His promising performance brings loads of intrigue to this week’s Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne — though it’s not stroke play, we’ll see plenty of Tiger over the four days of matches. Good news is that by all accounts, his partner Steve Stricker is healthy, but let’s hope it works out so Stricker has the flatstick in his hands more often than Tiger in the foursomes format (alternate shot).

(AP Photo/Andrew Brownbill)