Tiger Woods isn't hitting stationary objects with his SUV or his tee shots anymore. He's finding the velvety green grass again in every facet of his life -- which is good for him, frightening for the field and reassuring for a sport that desperately needs him on Sundays.
The injuries, the scandal, the divorce, the swing change, the upheaval and the threat of Rory McIlroy, it all piled high, and Tiger finally scaled that Everest on Monday to enjoy the sweeping and panoramic view again. So this is what it looks like? Alright, then. After all that, after missing from the top of the rankings for 877 days with some doubt if he'd ever return, he's back to No. 1 again, without necessarily being back as the player we once knew.
But that's the thing about This Tiger and That Tiger. He can't be the force that ruled golf at a crazy pace -- really, who can? -- and he doesn't need to be, either. Here in this second act, he can find a comfortable and productive middle ground, far from the player who owned all four major championships at once and also miles from the mess of a man who needed drastic repairs to his image, knee, personal life and game.
"I'm headed in the right direction," he said, and take a wild guess where that's leading to?
After winning Arnold Palmer's tournament, which he's done eight times now, the next stop is Augusta. There's the reasonable belief that, until he wins his next major, the rosy projections about Tiger can only be taken so far and believed so much. Which sounds about right. Let us see Tiger in contention on the back nine on Sunday at the Masters, or being fitted for a fifth green jacket, and then we'll talk. Let's see Tiger grab at least one major this year, which he hasn't done since 2008. Let's see Tiger demonstrate that he's resumed the chase for Jack Nicklaus' record and that getting the four major titles he needs to tie seems a cinch.
But when you've been through almost four years of humiliation, pain, embarrassment, surgery and hearing about yourself in past-tense, it's all about taking things one birdie at a time. And that's what Tiger just did by reclaiming No. 1, one significant step for him, one giant leap for golf.
"It's all about hard work, patience and getting back to winning tournaments," he said.
Well, yeah, to an extent. But a lot went into what happened Monday, when a washed-out Bay Hill tournament concluded and saw Tiger as anything but washed up. His putter was back to being as delicate as a diamond cutter. He ripped up the par-fives and tore away from the field. His playing partner, Rickie Fowler, crumbled trying to catch Tiger, like old times. On the 12th, Fowler birdied to sneak within two shots and Tiger immediately answered with a 20-footer. Ba-boom. The tournament, the crowd, the fist pump, it all belonged to him, and the ranking as well.
It wasn't a coincidence that Tiger reclaimed golf the same week he breathlessly updated us on the progress in his personal life. Happiness in one area of life often leads to the same in another. We kinda got the idea he and skier Lindsey Vonn were more than friendly months ago when he sent his private jet to fetch her off the slopes after her horrific crash.
"Something nice that's happened off the course was meeting Lindsey Vonn," Tiger gushed uncharacteristically on Facebook where he showed off pictures of the new sports power couple. Strangely, he then asked for privacy -- surely you got a chuckle at that -- and it became stranger still when Vonn hastily and very publicly tweeted "Number 1 !!!!!!!" as soon as Tiger grabbed Arnie's trophy. Didn't she get the email?
You can see, from a distance anyway, why Tiger seems comfortable and happy with her. Both went through a messy divorce at the height of their careers. She'll probably wind up the best skier in history if she recovers and wins another Olympic gold; he'll be the best golfer ever if he catches Jack. They both dealt with career-threatening injuries. So yeah, through pain and pleasure and the ups and downs, they can relate.
He's allowed a second chance to make a relationship work. We all have our faults and flaws and earned opportunities to make up for them. He paid the price, suffered from a loss of sponsors and felt the sting of being a punch-line in public. He failed miserably and let people down, although by all indications, even though he was a crummy husband, Tiger seems to be a devoted father to his two children.
"Golf is not the priority anymore," he said, "and I wouldn't change that for anything."
Ah, but golf remains a driving force in his life. That's why he changed coaches, and dealt with the long and often frustrating process of reworking his swing mechanics, and endured the medical process necessary to gain full use of his repaired knee. That's why he continued to grind after so many false "Tiger is back" alarms last year. That's why he badly wanted to win at Bay Hill and snatch the top ranking from McIlroy.
He now has six wins in his last 20 starts, a 30-percent success rate, better than his career 27 percent, and no matter if you're a Tiger fan or not, this is good to see. This is all promising. Because a refocused and rejuvenated Tiger is tremendous for golf. The sport doesn't need him to win every tournament, but it's vastly more interesting when he has a chance to win most of them. When he dominated the game and put distance between him and whoever was No. 2, there was a feeling that this had become stale. Well, how much did you enjoy the last three years, when Tiger was trying to elevate himself from No. 58 in the world? It was a blast, right? Right.
Tiger being Tiger, he actually thinks his 2000-2008 era is reclaimable, and bless him for that.
"I don't want to become as good as I once was," he said. "I want to become better."
He added: "I'm getting there. I'm very pleased that some of the shots I struggled with are now strengths. My game is consistent. You can see the incremental progress I've made. My short game has come around. I'm at a high level."
And when's the last time he felt this good about his game, his life, himself?
"Been a few years."
At times those "few years" seemed like decades. That's how long it dragged on and dragged Tiger down in the muck he created for himself. But that's over. His body and swing are showing tremendous signs of good health and he seems happy.
He doesn't have to be That Tiger to give the game a jolt, because This Tiger, in some ways, will be more interesting to watch.