Tiger Woods finishes in front at Memorial, but is he back?


Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the 18th hole during the final round of the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. (Matt Sullivan/Reuters)

Here we go again. Tiger Woods is the U.S. Open champion. Tear up your tickets. Print up the T-shirts. Plan to watch something else with dad June 17, something cheery like “The Killing.” No need to hold a tournament when Woods has been declared the winner. Like earlier this year, when he was installed as Masters champion after winning at Bay Hill — despite the fact that it was his first PGA Tour victory since 2009.

Oh wait. That ended more poorly than season 1 of “The Killing”: Woods tied for 40th at Augusta, the golf equivalent of making us wait another season to find Rosie Larsen’s murderer. Then he slammed the trunk Friday at Quail Hollow — funny, the same thing happened to poor Rosie — and tied for 40th again at the Players Championship.

But Woods won Sunday at the Memorial, the Jack Nicklaus tournament he loves almost as much (five wins) as he loves Arnold Palmer’s tournament (seven).

So now he’s back — back to winning tournaments on courses he loves. That’s it, for now. His 2012 career trajectory could be charted using a pen attached to a bungee cord. You could get whiplash watching him bob up and down leader boards. He could certainly win the U.S. Open; he could certainly miss the cut at the U.S. Open. I’m eager to find out which — I’ll record “The Killing” and watch him instead, assuming he’s still in the game on Sunday night — but I’m not declaring him back.

Neither is he.

“I’ll let you guys figure that out,” he told the increasingly predictive media.

I know this is a pet peeve with me, and that pet is a dead horse, so feel free to skip this paragraph. The Open is 11 days away. Why do we have to decide the winner today? Why is it essential to “know” something before it happens? When did sports become predicting outcomes instead of watching events? Shared experience has become being the first person to correctly tweet who’s going to win something. Fun! I blame fantasy leagues, gambling and the media. That’s right, I said it.

I get the excitement of what happened Sunday. All the usual Tiger drama was there. It was his 73rd pro win, tying him with Nicklaus for second on the career list. Woods made one of those patented Woods miracle shots, the ones you remember years after. Nicklaus was in the booth, gushing over that shot, which helped Woods rally from two strokes down to win by two. (If you want to know one difference between Nicklaus and Woods, there it is: When someone, someday, ties Woods’s record for anything, he won’t be in the booth, saying things such as, “The most unbelievable, gutsy shot I’ve ever seen.”)

It was the kind of shot that makes you believe Woods is back, back from injury and his personal problems and his never-ending swing tinkering. But Bay Hill didn’t mean he was back, and neither does this. Racking up another Tour win is important to Woods, but not as important as those majors. They are what counts to him now, and catching Nicklaus in that category is more important than anything. He’s four short of his hero’s 18 majors. The sands are passing through that particular hourglass faster than Woods had expected. That may be what hurt him in Augusta: He knows if he’s going to get there, he really needs to get busy.

Because a lot of guys are capable of winning majors these days. The last one, Bubba Watson, is the Tiger antithesis: He hasn’t had a lesson since age 10. “I just swing funny, and somehow it works,” he said. Can you imagine Woods uttering that sentence?

Tiger has changed swing coaches three times while I typed this sentence. His use of the weight room and his technician’s approach used to be a strength; now all the stroke doctoring seems sometimes to have twisted him into knots, both mentally and physically.

He’s in his head, the place, we are told, where golf is really played. By that standard, he’s on the course 24/7, which is not necessarily a good thing.

I’d love to see Woods win the Open, partly to stop all this “he’s back” and “he’s not back” talk and partly because when he’s on his game, he’s still the most exciting golfer on the course. That’s saying something considering that in his absence, some really good young golfers emerged. It’s no longer a punishment to watch a Tiger-less tournament.

The trouble is, we never know when his game is going to be on. He had what he used to call his “A” game Sunday, but when he struggles, he no longer produces “B” work. He flunks. That’s why it’s crazy to talk about him as the Open winner. He needs to produce strong back-to-back performances, show a little consistency and stop dissecting every aspect of his swing and his game like a deranged coroner. I’d say he just needs to have fun out there, but that’s never been a club in his bag. At least his confidence seems to be back.

“That was some good stuff out there,” Woods said. “I never really missed a shot today.”

Nope, not on this particular day. But San Francisco is 11 days and 2,400 miles from a good day in Dublin, Ohio. On June 17 — and not before — we’ll know if Woods is the U.S. Open champion, if he’s really back to the Tiger of old, and who killed Rosie Larsen. Everyone take a deep breath. Settle down. Enjoy the weather. They say waiting builds character. Let’s find out.

For Tracee Hamilton’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/hamilton.

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