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The Case for ... BELIEVING IN TIGER, AGAIN

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WHAT IF I told you about a PGA Tour player pushing 42 who has endured four back surgeries and who recently suffered the twin shaming of having a picture of his private parts and a dashcam video of his DUI go viral? What if I told you that this downtrodden vet, who underwent a Hail Mary spinal-fusion surgery last April, found the gumption to play his first tournament in 10 months and that, across four rounds and against all odds, he finished better than the world No. 1 (Dustin Johnson), the reigning Tour Player of the Year (Justin Thomas) and the current U.S. Open champ (Brooks Koepka)? You would be amazed, right?

Well, Tiger Woods is that player, and that only complicates the meaning of his latest comeback, which began at last week's Hero World Challenge, where he finished tied for ninth in an 18-man glorified exhibition on a cupcake course in the Bahamas. If you are experiencing déjà vu, that's because Woods made a similar return at last year's World Challenge, during which he led the field in birdies. Things quickly fizzled from there.

This time there is more room for (guarded) optimism, mostly because Woods looked freer in every sense. He says that this is the first time in a decade he has been able to practice pain-free, and all the homework showed in Woods's surprisingly sharp play. More impressive than his scoring touch was the abandon with which he swung his driver, blasting towering draws and not the wipey, defensive fade of recent years. At times his ball speed topped 180 mph, comparing favorably with the young guns in the field.

Maybe the biggest takeaway was metaphysical. Woods has always had the most expressive visage in the sport: first the assassin's glint when he was dominating the Tour, then the grimaces from back pain, the chip-yips and assorted other horrors. Last week Tiger looked happier and more relaxed than he ever has. In fact, he was glowing. His meticulously crafted image has been shattered, and the crusade to break Jack Nicklaus's records all but abandoned. Maybe for the first time ever Woods can play the game without the crushing weight of expectations.

There are still causes for concern. The chip-yips never really go away; they lurk in the nervous system like a virus. Woods played a number of sublime chips and pitches last week but also had just enough iffy moments with his wedge to remind us of his frailties. And though he was delighted to report zero back pain, it was only one week; the real test will be if his body can withstand the months (and years) of the pounding required to prepare for tournaments and then hold up through those long weeks.

Of course, these concerns were easily overpowered by the visceral fun of watching Tiger bash majestic 2-irons that looked to have been borrowed from the turn of the century. Every Woods highlight last week led to spasms of excitement from golf fans, reporters and even fellow players. Given Tiger's age and mileage, it's unlikely this middle-aged single dad will ever again be a week-in, week-out force. But Woods flashed just enough of the old magic that it now seems possible he will enjoy a few more moments in the sun and be able to leave the game on his own terms. That right there would be a helluva comeback.

Tiger looked more relaxed than he ever has. Maybe for the first time ever he can play the game without the crushing weight of expectations.

BY THE NUMBERS

301

Days between Woods's last competitive round (Dubai Desert Classic) and last week's Hero World Challenge.

-8

Final score for Woods, tied for ninth in a field that included eight of the top 10 players on Tour.