The golfing prodigy who has dominated the sport for most of the past decade is made of stern stuff.
We really love your Tiger feat
This time last year a typical day for Tiger Woods would involve lifting himself from his sickbed, hobbling to the settee, watching a bit of golf on TV and then trying to climb back between the covers without adding to his pain.
It is nothing short of remarkable, therefore, that the world's best golfer is now lording it over the fairways once again. After setting the early pace in the US PGA championship, which enters its third round at Hazeltine, Minnesota, today, Tiger has given the perfect answer to those who thought last year's chronic knee problems meant his days at the top were numbered. Whatever happens tomorrow night at the climax of the golfing calendar's last major tournament, 2009 has been a magnificent year of rehabilitation for him.
Fourteenth months ago he had bade a reluctant goodbye after pushing his creaking body to the limit to capture the 2008 US Open, his 14th major title, leaving him four short of Jack Nicklaus's record. Aware that it would be his final event before undergoing corrective surgery on badly damaged knee ligaments, the last thing he wanted was an 18-hole play-off against the Rocco Mediate which would mean putting the fragile joint through a fifth torturous day. But he battled on.
Holding the US Open trophy aloft for the third time, Woods announced that he would not be around for a while but promised to return fitter and stronger. It is a tribute to his commitment to the game that he has. Even Woods himself confesses to being staggered by the level of success he has enjoyed since making his comeback in March after eight months of inactivity. Five titles, including the last two events on the US Tour - the Buick Open and the Bridgestone Invitational - meant Tiger arrived at Hazeltine this week as favourite.
Woods, 33, is a born winner, which tends to go hand in hand with being a sore loser. Tiger makes no secret of hating it when he loses but usually manages to accept defeat graciously. His single-minded desire to win, however, has often left him ruing some of his on-course behaviour. His loose tongue got him into hot water last weekend when he broke Tour protocol by criticising the referee John Paramor for intervening at a crucial stage of his head-to-head battle for the title with Ireland's Padraig Harrington.
That outburst led to reports that he had incurred a rare financial penalty for his indiscretion, but neither Woods nor tour officials would confirm whether a fine had been levied. Harrington, who suffered badly from the referee's calls for him to speed up over the closing holes, observed that Woods as victor was able to take the moral high ground and condemn the referee for "getting in the way of a great battle".
What Woods might have said if he had lost is anybody's guess. "I say bad things at times," Woods said. "I don't mean to, it just comes out. It's not something I try to do. It just happens. Have I been trying to get better at that? Yeah, my entire life." As Woods gets older, the likelihood is that those rare disciplinary issues will become fewer. How much older he gets before casting aside his driver is one of golf's biggest talking points.
Possessing more money than he can ever spend, Woods did not need to battle back to fitness after his operation, but he remains driven by the prospect of immortality. The Nicklaus record of 18 majors - the last of them secured at the age of 46 - is what pushes him most but he also has his eyes focused on another golfing legend Sam Snead, whose all-time title record of 82 PGA tournaments is coming into view. Woods needs only 12 more to emulate Snead.
Majors are a different matter, though, and Woods admitted before launching his powerful Hazeltine challenge to being frustrated by his failure in this year's US Masters, US Open and British Open where on the Scottish links of Turnberry he suffered the ignominy of failing to make the halfway 'cut'. "It has still been a great year," said Woods, shrugging off that rare blot on his copybook. "To be as consistent as I have been since coming back is probably the thing I am most proud of."
Woods was disappointed with his Turnberry failure for a host of reasons, not least because he was unable to make a swift riposte against his great friend Roger Federer, the world's top tennis player, in their personal duel for glory. In early June, Federer stood one behind Woods in major titles won. A month later the Swiss maestro had moved one ahead by winning the French Open and Wimbledon Championship and he drove home that point with a gloating text message.
"Our texts back and forth have always been jabby," said Woods. "That one was more so. But Roger is not the type of person who would rub it in that he now has more majors than me. It's up to me now to get ahead of him again." The man who nurtured this competitive, focused approach was Woods's father, Earl. Born Eldrick Tont Woods on December 30, 1975, Tiger was given his moniker by his father, a retired US special forces office, because it was the nickname of a Vietnamese soldier who was a close friend.
A former baseball player, it was Earl who put the first golf club into his son's hand when he could barely walk. Tiger paid tribute to his influence after his death from prostate cancer in 2006. On his website he wrote: "My dad was my best friend and greatest role model. I will miss him deeply. He was an amazing dad, coach, mentor ... ." Weeks later after winning the British Open at Royal Liverpool, Tiger punched the air in triumph as he lifted the trophy then, in a rare display of emotion, collapsed in tears on his caddy's shoulder.
From his Thai mother, Kultida, Tiger acquired Buddhism, which he has said helped him control his stubbornness and impatience. "I practise meditation, that is something I do, that my mother taught me over the years. In the Buddhist religion you have to work for yourself internally in order to achieve anything in life and set up the next life ... So you are going to have to work your butt off in every aspect of life."
From the start, Tiger was a prodigy. At the age of two he appeared on US TV putting against Bob Hope on The Mike Douglas Show. At three, he recorded an astonishing score of 48 strokes for nine holes on his local course in California. When, at 15, he became the youngest winner of the US Junior Amateur championship, it seemed inevitable that he would go on to win the senior amateur title in record breaking time. Sure enough, he managed that in 1994 at the age of 18.
The only question then was when his talents would be thrust into the paid ranks. When that big day came in 1996 Tiger immediately became one of the highest earners on the planet, attracting sponsorship deals with Nike and Titleist which were worth a combined total of US$60 million. Those endorsements came his way in the knowledge that his extraordinary talents would swiftly be displayed to global audiences and Tiger wasted no time in delivering the essential requirement of one of the big four titles at the first time of asking eight months later.
And how he delivered. He destroyed the famed Augusta National course to claim the green jacket as the youngest ever US Masters champion by a record margin of 12 strokes. That glittering honour and three other tour victories that year propelled Tiger to world No 1 status in only his 42nd week as a professional. He has since spent a record 560 weeks at the top of the rankings, giving way on occasions to Greg Norman, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and David Duval.
The prospect of any of today's leading players overhauling him on that rankings list is remote with the left-handed Phil Mickelson standing a distant second ahead of England's Paul Casey. Tiger will decide when he has had enough of ruling the roost but there are no signs of that happening yet. Happily married to Elin, a Swiss former model, the couple now have a son and daughter and a luxurious home on Jupiter Island, Florida, where Gary Player, Greg Norman, Nick Price and Celine Dion are neighbours. It would be a pleasant place to put your feet up. The golfing world will be a sadder place when Tiger decides to do so.
* The National