x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Tiger Woods still lost on the comeback trail

Tiger Woods is continuing his comeback this weekend at the US PGA Championship. Many wonder whether his game will ever be the same.

Tiger Woods was not happy with his putting at the Bridgestone Invitational. Many wonder if he will ever be happy with his game again.
Tiger Woods was not happy with his putting at the Bridgestone Invitational. Many wonder if he will ever be happy with his game again.

Given the circumstances of a most peculiar year, the slogan of the final major tournament of the season - "Glory's Last Shot" - might not apply to Tiger Woods.

In some respects, the US PGA Championship is more like a fresh start. This is the seventh time in his 15 years on tour that Woods has come to the last major of the year without having made any progress toward the record that matters the most to him - the 18 professional majors won by Jack Nicklaus.

In three of those seasons, he was changing his swing. Last year, he was going through a divorce.

This year, he simply has not played.

Since closing with a 67 at the Masters, briefly sharing the lead on that Sunday until his game stalled and he tied for fourth, Woods went four months without playing a full round because of recurring pain in his left knee and Achilles tendon.

He missed only four tournaments he ordinarily would have played, but two of them were the US Open and the British Open.

Woods returned to golf only one week before the PGA Championship. His scores at the Bridgestone Invitational were not terribly impressive, but what mattered as much to him was that his left leg felt as strong as ever.

"We get four chances to peak per year and, unfortunately, I was only able to try and peak for one," Woods said.

"Obviously, my timetable isn't very long to try and peak for the last one here [at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Georgia]."

Yes, it is his last shot of the year to try to win a major.

Could this also be his last shot at restoring belief that he still can reach or even break the Nicklaus benchmark? That he could get back to No 1 in the world? That his "victory vermilion" shirt on Sunday could still mean something?

Some of these could get answered when the 93rd PGA Championship gets under way Thursday.

Woods is only 35. Nicklaus, when he was this age, went on to win five more majors, and the Golden Bear might have won more if he had not already broken the record once held by Bobby Jones.

But the trauma in Woods's life - physical and emotional - makes him an old 35.

It is more than the four surgeries on his left knee, dating back to his freshman year at Stanford.

Woods used to walk into the locker room or on to the practice range fully aware that the other players were looking at him as golf's best player, and the guy they would have to beat.

Now they look at him the way everyone else does, wondering what is going on inside his head, and curious as to what kind of scores he might post.

The swagger is gone because Woods has not won a tournament in 20 months. The aura is gone because golf looks deeper than ever.

Three of the last five major champions are in the top 10 in the world and still in their 20s - Rory McIlroy, the US Open champion; Charl Schwartzel, the Masters champion; and Martin Kaymer, the defending PGA champion. Like so many other young players, they have no reason to be afraid of Woods because they have not competed against him at his best.

And there are no guarantees they ever will.

"It would be a little intimidating if you knew, for sure, that he was going to come back, and play the way he did in 2000 or 2001," McIlroy said. "But who knows, for sure, what way the game is going to go?"

It is a question that has been asked - and not answered - since Woods first returned at the Masters last year after his image was shredded over extramarital affairs.

His "comeback" lasted one tournament - a tie for fourth in the 2010 Masters - until he missed the cut in his next tournament with his highest 36-hole score ever, then withdrew a week later from another tournament with a neck injury.

He picked up a new swing coach in Sean Foley late last summer and showed signs of immediate improvement, only to start this year with ordinary results. He came back at The Players Championship on May 12 from what was described as "minor injuries", only to quit after nine holes. Woods pledged not to return until he was 100 per cent healthy, even to the point of missing two majors.

For his part, Woods does not see the PGA Championship any differently from other years.

"It's a major championship," he said. "We get four a year and try to peak four times a year. It's as simple as that."

Even after 13 majors have come and gone without his name on the trophy? Even after not being certain for most of the summer that he could play the PGA Championship this year?

Woods shook his head.

"Feels the same," he said, then raising his eyebrow with a slight grin and added: "Looking forward to it."

So many others feel the same way.