Bold and the futile? Confident Tiger still a mystery

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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AKRON, Ohio -- The voice and message sound familiar.

Physically, he looks the same as ever, minus the recent limp-and-gimp gait.

He certainly hasn't lost much of his swagger, despite facing more gnawing public and professional uncertainty than at any point in his 15-year career.

With his sights set on playing, and finally completing, his first full tournament since April, it might qualify as a victory of sorts to remain ambulatory for 72 holes this week at the Bridgestone Invitational, played at a venue where he hit absolute rock bottom 12 months ago.

Not for Tiger Woods, who was busting out in equal parts bravado and testosterone Tuesday as he returned to PGA Tour competition.

Same as it forever was?

It took about four minutes before the embattled former No. 1 fielded the bazillion-dollar query that the entire golf world is starved to see answered, since not a soul knows what to expect after a three-month, injury-induced layoff, a 22-month victory drought in the States and more tabloid headlines than anyone not named Murdoch.

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Well, uncertainty exists except with him, the original army of one. As ever, winning isn't everything, it's the onlyest, orneriest thing. He assumed his familiar posture -- borderline defiant and brash. Need we even pose the question?

"Same as always, hasn't changed, [the] expectation level," he said.

Seriously, other than his stoic single-mindedness, what hasn't changed, brother?

New winners on tour continue to fill the victory void, his caddie of 12 seasons was given a Nike in the backside and Woods has skidded to No. 28 in the world, a free-fall of 26 spots since January. Forget the mental gymnastics of psyching himself up, and perhaps trying to convince the field that he still radiates an aura of intimidation -- it's hard to fathom how much more the landscape could have been bulldozed since he won here at Firestone Country Club in 2009.

It's a whole different game, in every facet and forum, though Woods seemingly has tuned it all out. Based on the rap that he laid out at Firestone, where he played nine holes Tuesday and pronounced himself more physically fit than he has been in years, he's ready to launch his career mulligan.

If this is truly the beginning of Tiger Era II, it could be the blockbuster sequel of the summer. It could also be the worst thing since Caddyshack 2.

"I'm here to try and win the golf tournament," he said. "That's what I'm focused on."

Ah, he hasn't lost his infamous sense of subtlety. In a pragmatic sense, that sentiment is harder to swallow than a handful of bunker sand. In fact, winning this week would be a huge upset, given the rust and uneven results before his latest injury setback. But Woods has made a career of doing the impractical and achieving the improbable, hasn't he?

He's certainly talking the talk.

Since Woods last limped off into the distance at the Players Championship in mid-May, he fired wingman Steve Williams, threw new irons, wedges and a putter in the bag, and has mostly bit his lip while awaiting clearance from his doctors to simply resume hitting balls. He was green-lighted sometime in the middle of July, though swing coach Sean Foley wasn't summoned until late last week.

Swing coach Sean Foley tries to temper client Tiger Woods' enthusiasm: 'We have to slow our way into it ... be smart about it.' (Getty Images)  
Swing coach Sean Foley tries to temper client Tiger Woods' enthusiasm: 'We have to slow our way into it ... be smart about it.' (Getty Images)  
"He gets cabin fever, yes," said Mark Steinberg, Woods' agent. "But getting it fixed was the priority, really with rest and listening to his doctors and trainers." Listening has never been a strong suit, sometimes to his detriment. This time, to the degree that Woods' musings can be vetted, it worked out to his advantage. For once, he said he made his knee issues better, not worse.

"The great thing is I don't feel a thing," Woods said. "It feels solid, it feels stable, no pain. As I said, that's one of the reasons why I took as long as I did to come back is that I want to get to this point where I can go ahead and start playing golf again like this."

Like this, or like that? He hurt his leg, shot 42 for nine holes and withdrew his last time out at TPC Sawgrass.

"You couldn't pick a better spot to come back," Steinberg said.

Well, maybe. If Woods is going to pull off some sort of phoenix act, this would certainly be the right venue. He has seven victories at Firestone, which is what made last year's incomprehensible meltdown so riveting. Woods finished second-to-last in his worst 72-hole finish ever, at times hitting shots that would make a 10-handicapper wince. He started working with Foley a week later, starting yet another transition period with his swing.

As ever, Woods was a fount of vagaries, deflections and hazy facts. He said he started hitting full shots "two or three weeks ago," yet didn't contact Foley until late last week. Woods said he isn't limited in how much he can practice, but Foley indicated otherwise.

"We have to periodize, up," Foley said after the practice round. "He's much healed, much better, but we have to slow our way into it and be smart about it."

The wisdom of using an interim caddie, Bryon Bell, is certainly causing some snickers. Bell showed up with Woods on Tuesday, two legs as white as a baby's backside sticking out from a pair of khaki shorts.

"I've got 60 block on," Bell said.

He might need a Hazmat suit to withstand the glare and scrutiny of the week, because Woods is the biggest story in the game yet again. Bell is a boyhood friend -- they first met at Anaheim's Orangeview Junior High and played on the same high school golf team -- who runs Woods' course-design company. As it has been pointed out in several news outlets, Bell was linked to the sex scandal when his name appeared on travel receipts for one of Woods' alleged dalliances.

So much for putting the worst behind him. In a way, reminders will be standing beside him all week. Other ties have been summarily severed.

Woods canned Williams, a friend and confident, in early July, ending the most productive caddie-player relationship in the game's history. Say what you will about Williams' demeanor on the course, but among his peers, he was held in high esteem.

The irony of Woods booting a guy for being disloyal -- Williams was working for Adam Scott while Woods was sidelined -- was lost on exactly nobody. Williams said he felt like he wasted two years of his life waiting for Woods to clean up the personal and professional mess he had created. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when Woods handed Williams his pink slip.

"That's what he says and what he feels," Woods said of Williams' assertion. "It was a tough conversation. We said what needed to be said, man to man, face to face."

Elsewhere, there are plenty of new faces for Woods to learn and few of them fear him anymore. Already this season, there have been six rookie winners. The former world No. 1 called it a "changing of the guard," and few of the newbies ever crossed paths with Woods when he was stomping on throats with a cleated shoe.

Speaking of which, even that has changed. Woods is playing with soft spikes and highly flexible, rubber-soled shoes for the first time. Insert metaphor here.

"The game is switching a little bit," he said, noting the gradual slide of 40-something stars like Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Jim Furyk. "Now there's a lot of new guys."

At 35, Woods isn't necessarily old. But he's certainly older. Is he possibly the same old guy, or is this the same old guise?

Whether fans are pulling for or against him, the next two weeks should answer that question far more comprehensively than anything coming from Woods' predictably confident posturing. Nobody can possibly predict what will happen.

"Now, we'll see," Steinberg said. "Time will tell."

Actually, so will Woods, familiar bravado and all.

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