For the past two years, there's been a rush to declare Tiger Woods "back." As Woods tumbled down the Official World Golf Rankings, casual observers and hardcore fans alike were looking for a reason to believe Woods would return to his previous form and dominate the PGA Tour like the Tiger of old. Now, after Woods finally broke through to win the 2012 Arnold Palmer Invitational, there's a rush to say he's back. But don't be so quick to make such definitive declarations.
Woods is certainly on the right track, and his four rounds at Bay Hill this past weekend were reason to believe his game is getting back to where it once was. On Sunday, as those around him wilted, Woods plodded along conservatively to win by five strokes -- a common occurrence during his run at the top. And he was one fainting teenager away from an even more convincing margin of victory.
But while Woods did finally break through to win an event -- his first PGA Tour win since September of 2009 -- it doesn't mean a thing until he wins a major. Is it moving the goalposts and setting the standard a little higher? Sure. But this is the standard Woods measures himself by. All these other events, including last weekend at Bay Hill, are tune-ups. All are cobbled together on his schedule as a means to an end -- the end being those four majors each year.
Since his last win over two years ago -- the Chevron World Challenge is nice, but doesn't count -- Woods has been in the midst of a lengthy overhaul. Everything has changed: his swing coach, caddie, personal life and even his body. Along the way, Woods has retooled his swing, dealt with significant injuries and gone under the knife to repair his ailing knee.
Woods' Arnold Palmer Invitational win was a step in the right direction, another milestone in the process. But he's not back to the Tiger of old. In fact, he may never be the same Tiger we saw dominating the PGA Tour week in and week out, winning tournaments with ease along the way. He's aging, his body is breaking down, and he's dealing with a field of competitors that have not only caught up to him, but passed him.
The mystique surrounding Tiger -- the thought that he's an invincible force who melts his competitors with a stare -- is gone and has been for some time. As his drought wore on, Woods became human -- more of a subplot than the main event in golf. He still draws, and always will, but at least for a moment the sport went on without him.
Even still, the race to declare Tiger back and better than ever says a lot about his impact on the sport and the desire for him to recapture his old form. Woods' run at the top of the sport was as dominant a period as we'll see golf -- a once-in-a-generation streak. Those memories left a lasting impression on fans of the sport and golfers alike, many of whom are now Woods' peers. It's natural to want to see Woods recapture that glory while towering above the competition once again.
Don't call it a comeback, as Woods himself implied after winning the Chevron World Challenge. In fact, don't call his win at Bay Hill anything. It's a part of the process -- a process that may never be complete. If his body holds up, Woods has every chance to catch Jack Nicklaus' career major mark and Sam Snead's win record.
Time isn't on Woods' side and he's not immortal, as we've seen over the past two years. He'll always be relevant, if only because we've seen what he's capable of at his best.
But Tiger Woods is not "back" in the sense that many want to believe.