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Tiger Woods returns to golf amid questions about his game and psyche

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2011; 12:01 AM

When Tom Watson was the No. 1 golfer in the world, his old friend Byron Nelson gave him some tough-love advice about how to stay on top amid all the distractions and temptations. A fine pro golfer has one fine thing: his fine golf game. So never neglect it.

Even with this motto in mind, Watson never won a major championship after he was 33 and once he slipped from the No. 1 ranking, he never made it back to the top.

Now, as Tiger Woods begins his 2011 season Thursday at Torrey Pines, the man who just slipped to No. 3 in the world a few days ago needs to remember that his amazing golf game is still the one truly remarkable thing about him. Woods should never again neglect his craft as he felt he had to do last season during his year in personal crisis.

We may find out quickly, perhaps within days and probably by the Masters in April, whether Woods has endured the drudgery of rebuilding his great golf game.

Woods gets to start a fresh slate at Torrey, a course he has loved since childhood, where he has won in his last five appearances there and the site of his one-good-leg win over Rocco Mediate in 91 holes at the '08 U.S. Open. Woods doesn't have to win, though I hope he does. But if he isn't close, if he's still scattershot on a course he knows like the back of his hand, it will be yet another damaging shock to his psyche.

Can we have a chorus of: "Tiger, come back. All is forgiven."

His sport desperately needs him back, that's for sure, especially floundering American golf. The top two players in the world are now Europeans - you know, the guys who won the Ryder Cup again last year - Germany's modest young Martin Kaymer and England's Lee Westwood, who has never won a major championship. Phil Mickelson, 40 and in a slump as bad as Woods since winning last year's Masters, has dropped to No. 6.

Much as his sport would love the jolt of a Woods comeback, and the scoundrel-redemption debate that would attend it, can Tiger overcome so many challenges at once?

Last year, when he didn't win a tournament and failed to qualify for the Tour Championship, Woods played as if he were just any other talented but streaky player in the top 30. You can't be as gifted as Woods, 35, and play as badly as he did all of last season - not if you're paying much attention to your job. Woods concedes the point. He was going through self-made domestic hell and a public pillorying that made him the parody of first resort all over the world. He explained he was "getting help," trying to get back to his core values and reconnect to the Buddhist beliefs with which he grew up.

That's a great lifetime project. The rest of us are a mess, too. Good luck. Hope you figure out who you are. But while you work on your soul, don't forget your wedge game.

And your lousy putting. That wild driver needs sorting out. The hangdog attitude has to go in the trash can, too. Let's see, that leaves only the rebuilding of your whole swing with a new coach and rehabbing all the injuries you've accumulated over the past decade.

Those who think that this week simply marks the return of Woods to his regularly-scheduled appointment with greatness - and five more major championships to pass Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 - probably don't have much feeling for tournament golf.

Woods's self-confidence will never be quite the same. In golf, everybody "learns to lose" eventually. It just took Tiger much longer. Once you know how, you never forget. Nicklaus was a runner-up in majors even more often than he won: 19 times.

After a decade of injuries from his fierce swing and fanatical workouts, Woods will seldom be completely golf-healthy again. His foes will never fear him as much.

Young players have already built on his techniques in the power game. You can't watch a Rory McIlroy or Anthony Kim swing without thinking, "They are pups out of Tiger."

Woods's mystique, as a person of high character and noble golf destiny, is gone for good. Also, the last time Woods switched coaches and rebuilt his swing, he needed a season and a half to get it all worked out and return to his best form. He could be "on track" toward developing a fine post-35 swing and still not win a major title this year.

So, this week is much more than just a season opener for Tiger. You can't hide in golf. The truth about your game comes racing right up into your face. Last year, the U.S. Open and British Open were played on courses where Woods had enjoyed great victories, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews. Would those sites flip some competitive switch? When he couldn't win at either, his year was toast. Only at the Ryder Cup, where he had a 3-1 record, did his appetite for the game seem to be returning.

Woods is now in the same boat as the rest of us. Okay, it's a considerably bigger boat, even after the $100 million divorce settlement.

This week, he made fun of himself in a tweet. "At least I was #1 pick back then, fo shizzle," he wrote, referring to an old "racial draft" spoof on "Chappelle's Show" when a nerdy no-street-cred Woods snickers, "I always wanted to say this . . . Fo shizzle."

See, Woods just wants you to know he's a regular guy. He gets the Tiger jokes. He doesn't need to buy the Urban Dictionary to know "fularious" from "ridonkulous."

But there's a trap in being a great athlete who also wants to be normal, well-adjusted, included in the group. The acceptance you seek can be the water that douses your flame. Long ago, I asked Lee Trevino which players he had dinner with on the road since the Tour was such a lonely itinerant life. "I've never had dinner with another player," he said.

Woods is on Twitter. The most famous athlete in the world wants us to know him better. Get comfortable. Hey, he's rooting for the Steelers in the Super Bowl because he can't pull for Aaron Rodgers who is "a Cal guy." Maybe he'll tweet at halftime to tell us whether he's having popcorn or chips. Now that's fularious and ridonkulous.

I prefer to think, or just hope, that Woods dashed off those tweets after he'd hit four hundred balls and was headed to a thousand chip shots. Don't quit your day job: It's golf.

boswellt@washpost.com

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