The performance was like a trailer for an intriguing movie. A snippet. A sneak peek. There was Tiger Woods, cruising around the familiar hills and dales and scenic vistas of Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, Ca. He was doing familiar good things: carving shots, escaping trouble, finishing big as he won the Farmers Insurance Open on Monday by four easy shots. He was himself again, his old self.
The movie was a sequel.
"Check this out," you said to whomever might listen. "Tiger's back. Looking good. It's like seeing Indiana Jones returning to straighten out some new Temple of Doom. Like Johnny Depp as a pirate. Like Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes. Like What's-His-Name as What's-His-Name."
From the minute Woods climbed into the family television set in the late afternoon on the East Coast, earlier on the West, pushing Judge Judy out of her regularly-scheduled time slot to finish the last 11 holes because fog had forced this extra day, there was little doubt about what was going to happen. He was 14-under par, six shots ahead of the field before he even swung a club. He was eight shots ahead with five holes to play before a bogey-double-bogey-par-bogey-par finish closed the margin. He was in control.
The rebuilt swing that gave him trouble a year ago looked natural, improved. The shorter putts that were missed a year ago, those pesky little twisters, were pesky no more. His wedges, soilid all weekend, dropped golf balls onto the green with precision. His driver, sometimes balky, was evened off by a variety of recovery shots that came out of the sand, under trees, landed a foot away from the hole.
This was the familiar Tiger Woods package. The familiar red shirt, the close-out shirt on the final day, was topped by the familiar grim expression on his face. He walked in a cocoon of familiar crankiness. Pity the photographer who made a sound during a backswing. The stare would arrive in a hurry. (Yes, that happened). Pity the poor driver that mis-performed. Clank. It would hit the ground. (Yes, that also happened).
Pity the poor golf ball. That sucker was flying.
"This is the way it used to be," you said more than once. "Nobody else out there mattered. There was the field and there was Tiger. Remember those times? You bet one or the other. If you were smart, you bet Tiger."
His performance made the golf summer suddenly look much more interesting. This was his first PGA event of the year, a statement win. He dominated. OK, it was a tournament he now has won seven times on a course where he has won eight times, a course he has played since he was a child. OK, the field wasn't filled with the biggest stars, wasn't a major, wasn't, wasn't, wasn't, but still it was a hell of start.
Is this the way he is going to play all year? Will he be battling Rory McIlroy, the new top dog, across the country, across continents? Will he be a force again in the majors, starting in two months at the Masters? He is now second in all-time tour wins, 75, behind Sam Snead's 82. Is he on the way to topping that? Is he back in the hunt to add those four more majors to catch Jack Nicklaus at 18?
The possibilities are delicious.
For three years, starting with that ill-fated crash into a fire hydrant at the end of his driveway, he has lived in a personal desert. He was the Hester Prynne of the PGA, his image blown apart as a line of women appeared to tell their sordid tales. He lost family, a good part of his fortune, a bunch of self respect.
His marriage evaporated, whoosh, the stories writ large in the gossip pages. His golf game seemed to follow, double whoosh. The greatest player of our time became average overnight. It was startling the way it all happened, as startling in its own way as Lance Armstrong's present situation. Things kept getting worse. He was injured, had surgery, came back. He changed caddies, changed coaches. He struggled, flashes here, flashes there, followed by more struggles.
Is it possible now that the struggles are done? Will the public give him time off for good behavior? Will his body stay together? Can his mind be at rest? Is it possible that he can come back all the way to all that he was? He is 37 years old. There should be a lot more golf in him. Is it possible that he still might break every record out there?
"You never know about the movie when you watch the trailer," you said. "Sometimes they cram all the good scenes into that little bit they show, then the movie stinks when you watch the whole thing. Sometimes they have those excited quotes like 'Riveting' and 'Wonderful' and 'Best Movie Ever Made' and they're just a fraud. Sometimes, though, you watch the trailer and good as it is, the movie's even better."
What will this be?
The first important reviews will be delivered late on April 14, a Sunday. The dateline will be Augusta, Ga.