The only way his frosty handshake with Stevie Williams on Sunday will be bearable for Tiger Woods is if Tiger gets to use the Claret jug to wipe off his ex-caddy's DNA.
Otherwise, it will be a nauseating way to end yet another big tournament, having to shake the hand of the guy you last won a major with. Which happened five years ago, way back in the good old days, before the fire hydrant, before the surgery, before the stretch of what-the-hell-just-happened that made us wonder if Tiger would ever again be the titanic force that once owned golf.
He'll have to win this major the hard way, the way he never has before, coming from behind and stealing the British Open. Get this: Tiger will be … an underdog come sunrise. He is 0-for-47 in majors when not leading or co-leading into the final round. He'll have to play the final 18 holes in the next to last group with Adam Scott, the reigning champ of the Masters, the tournament that once belonged to Woods, and Williams on Scott's bag serving as a constant and haunting reminder of a different era. Oh, man. Can a 14-time major winner catch a break here?
Still, with a championship in sight nonetheless, the reinvention of the most dominant player on the planet -- once upon a time, anyway -- will be complete if he pulls this off. In five years, Woods has gone from feared and respected, to shamed and disgraced, to the somewhat sympathetic figure he is now. Vulnerability does that to gifted people, especially the famous. It makes them a bit more believable, a bit more human, shows their frailties and faults and strikes a nerve among the 95 percent of the population who could never cover 200 yards with a wedge from the first cut.
The Open will get us Americans out of our beds Sunday morning because of Tiger and Tiger only. When Tiger isn't contending, golf is boring to the point of being back to wearing polyester plaid pants. This was the case during his prime when he didn't contend on the final back-nine, and during his personal hell, and even more so now when he disappears, with Rory McIlroy suffering an apparent bad back caused by carrying the Nike check that once was Tiger's.
Besides, aren't underdogs charming, for the most part, and hard to root against? That settles it, then. The only way for New Tiger to top Old Tiger in anything is to do something that Old Tiger has never done and pull off a stirring rally.
"I'm looking forward to the challenge of it," he said. "I've been in this position before, and I'm in it again. Hopefully I can play well and win the tournament. Make a couple more putts."
Those on other side of Lake Pacific will be fixated on someone else, another underdog. Lee Westwood will take a two-shot lead over Tiger into the final round, and Westy is primed for a career breakthrough here. The Englishman was more clutch in the third round than Tiger, dropping birdie on 17 while Tiger suffered a meltdown in a pot bunker for a two-shot swing. Westwood might be the best player without a major. He surrendered the 2010 Masters to Phil Mickelson on the final day, flirted a few times in other majors, but otherwise has come up empty.
In a 12-month stretch where London pulled off the Olympics and Andy Murray took Wimbledon, both done impressively, it would be rather appropriate if a grinding, friendly, fish-and-chips chap claimed the biggest tournament in Europe. Westy has won 10 times when leading non-major tournaments after 54 holes, and dropped a pair of big putts on the last two holes Saturday to distance himself from Tiger, so the man does know how to close. But if we're to be blown away by something unexpected in the Open, something we haven't seen before, why shouldn't it be Tiger coming from behind to win a major?
Amazing that it's never happened before. Well, there's one good and obvious reason for that: In his pre-December 2009 stranglehold on golf, Woods rarely put himself in position to rally. He took the lead and held it, 14 times, while contenders either drowned in a puddle of fright or couldn't catch up or merely gave in. We don't see that Tiger anymore and will never again witness him; age and surgery and scandal have taken their toll to one degree or another.
Still, that 0-for-47 in rallies is right up there as one of the true head-scratchers in sports, a stat you wouldn't normally associate with one of the two best all-time in what he does.
"I've got 14 of these things and I know what it takes to win it," he said.
Well, that's true for the most part. His comeback story therefore needs a comeback victory in order for it to be complete, don't you think? Since the 2008 U.S. Open, his last major victory, Tiger's had some teases. He was in third place after 54 holes in the 2010 U.S. Open and Masters, then fizzled. It says Tiger is OK being the hunted, but not the hunter. Although if you cited every player's come-from-behind percentage, most would look like Tiger's or worse.
His problem lately can be confined to Sunday. Tiger has shot in the 60s only five times in the final round of majors since that '08 victory. Some of that can be explained. He struggled initially in the aftermath of his scandal and the divorce. He went through a change in coaches and caddies. He made major adjustments to his swing. He had the knee issue. The last four or five years has been a process, a transition from Old to New golfer, an icon trying to position himself for one last run at Jack Nicklaus and the record.
Tiger should get used to this, however. Coming from behind will be the new reality for him. That Other Tiger isn't walking through that clubhouse anymore. That era when Tiger annihilated the field on a regular basis? Gone for good. He couldn't keep up that pace. Nobody could. He won't be that player anymore, nor does he have to be, either. He can still win the necessary four more majors to match Jack and stay in the running for the No. 1 ranking by being half as good.
He has a chance to make the career comeback official with a major comeback. Two shots can be erased. He'll have to deal with Westwood and Hunter Mahan, both looking for their first majors. And Scott, trying to win his second. And Stevie Williams, the evil ex-caddie, who'll fight the sinister urge to sneeze on Tiger's backswing.
Mostly, Tiger must deal with the challenge of doing something he's never done before.
"I'm pleased where I'm at," he said. "I'm only two back and there's only one guy ahead of me."
If we're destined to see a "first," then Westwood winning a major would be OK. Same for Mahan. Boring, but OK. I'd rather see the golf world turned upside down by Tiger squeezing Stevie's hand until it bleeds, then planting his first public smooch on Lindsey Vonn, then doing the same to the Claret jug, and then resuming the most anticipated chase in sports. And I don't mean Perkins waitresses.