Remember when Tiger Woods hobbled down the fairways at Torrey Pines, playing on one leg because of a torn ACL and stress fractures in his tibia? It was a superhuman performance: Woods, limping around the course as the week wore on, buried a putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Rocco Mediate, the unlikeliest of challengers. The two went toe-to-toe in an 18-hole playoff on Monday before Woods finally emerged the victor after the first hole of sudden death, the 19th hole of the day.
Two days later, Woods announced his season was over, the result of a significant leg injury that required surgery, as well as a lengthy rehab. That was almost four years ago -- June of 2008. It was also the last time Tiger Woods won a major; the last time we saw the Woods of old, with an air of invincibility surrounding him.
Since then, Woods has come crashing down to earth, the mystique and confidence surrounding him evaporating as he battled injuries and personal troubles few saw coming. We may never see that Tiger Woods -- the one whose mere presence at or near the top of the leaderboard struck fear in the hearts of competitors, causing them to wilt time and time again.
This isn't the same Tiger Woods. His body has aged, succumbing to the stress that comes with years of golf and the strain of his swing. He's retooled his mechanics, a lengthy process that came with growing pains, errant shots and frustration. His life off the course, once private and carefully managed to fit his image, seems to finally be back on track after years of self-inflicted crisis. And his mind finally seems right, a crucial component for a game that's as much mental as it is physical.
But different isn't necessarily bad for a man whose career has been a never-ending process with a singular goal. He tinkers, looking for every competitive advantage he can find. And he chases, looking up at Jack Nicklaus and his major championship record. Doubt has crept into what once seemed like a foregone conclusion -- a question of when Tiger would break Jack's record, not if. He's been stuck on 14 major wins, still four behind Jack, still with plenty of time to catch and pass the legend.
Woods has still shown flashes of brilliance, fleeting moments of unmatched creativity and execution on the golf course despite his recent struggles. The consistency has been missing over the past few years, and in majors since that US Open performance in 2008, but every once in a while Tiger pops up to remind the world he's still Tiger. It may be a shot, a late run on a Sunday or a strong round. But the ability to finish, to put away his competitors with the ease that was once a regularity, has been missing.
And so he would go back to the drawing board, back to work with a new swing coach, a new inner-circle and a different mentality. And just as things seemed to be heading in the right direction, his body would break down, setting back the process yet again. It was like a vicious cycle, and as he faced his own problems the game of golf went on without him.
With Woods out of the picture, either due to injury or inconsistency, a new wave of golfers stepped up and took his place. Phil Mickelson won his third green jacket, but also battled his own inconsistency during Tiger's "absence." The two titans -- the two biggest draws in golf -- left the door wide open for a new generation, a generation that once looked up to them, to take the torch.
Rory McIlroy emerged, then faltered at Augusta National before cementing his place as the future with a convincing US Open win. As Tiger was knocked off his perch atop the Official World Golf Rankings, others took his place -- a place he held so long it could've been renamed after him. Luke Donald, of all people, is the current World Number One, a reality nobody would've imagined just a few years ago. And a whole host of others, the younger generation who grew up looking up to Woods, rose to eye-level with their idol in his absence.
Yet along the way, Tiger always seemed to reappear at Augusta National, despite the injuries and inconsistency. Since 2005, Woods' fourth Masters win, he's yet to finish worse than in a tie for sixth, in 2009. He's finished second twice, third once, and fourth twice, including in each of the past two years. There's something about The Masters that fits Tiger's eye, even if he's not at his best.
This time around, there's a real reason to believe Woods is back, that he can break through to win his fifth green jacket. A Chevron World Challenge title this past winter was a sign of life. Even after a rocky start to the 2012 season -- in which he still seemed unsure of himself, his body and his swing -- Woods seemed to be close. Finally, in his final event before the Masters, he broke through, winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational by a convincing five strokes.
An Achilles flare-up weeks before -- putting a scare into Woods and his fans -- turned out to be nothing, and his final tune-up before Augusta was about as perfect as could be. For the first time in two-plus years, Woods was holding a trophy following a PGA Tour event.
Maybe the win was all he needed. Perhaps finally breaking through and finishing a tournament strong got him over the hump, giving him the mental edge back. Or maybe this was just another blip on the radar, a glimpse of hope followed by a reminder that he's still not back.
The Masters will be Tiger Woods' true test -- the standard by which he measures his game and success. Win a major and the questions go away; the chase for Jack's record resumes again. Falter again and doubt creeps back in, perhaps in his own mind as well as those observing from a distance.
One thing's for certain: the hype is back, and that's most certainly a good thing for the game, and a good thing for Tiger Woods. Now all he has to do is live up to it.
And it all starts Thursday morning at Augusta National, a place he adores -- the place he burst onto the scene, winning in record-setting fashion in 1997.