He is the underdog now, not the over-dog. There is no doubt about that fact for Tiger Woods. He returns this week from back surgery to play in the Quicken Loans National at the Congressional County Club in Bethesda, Md., and before the back surgery there was the knee surgery and before the knee surgery there was all of that TMZ-National Enquirer business about the car and the fire hydrant and the mistresses and the divorce and before that is almost too long ago to remember.
Wasn't there a time when he seemed to be a corporate robot, polished and pretty and perfect on the golf course and in life?
Wasn't he in a class by himself, young and bulletproof, ready to break every record that ever existed in his game?
"Tiger is just a man who is in total control of his game and his emotions," fellow golfer Nick Price marveled in 2000 when Woods walked away with the U.S. Open title by 15 strokes at Pebble Beach. "Jack Nicklaus caught golf with its pants down when he came out and could overpower a golf course. And we've seen the same with Tiger….There are a lot of great golfers out there who aren't getting any credit all because Tiger's taking it all."
"Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer I've ever seen," Mark O'Meara, friend and golfer, said after the same tournament. "It's hard for me to believe that there's ever been a player who could drive it, cut it, draw it, hit it high, hit it low, has the short game, putting, the mental toughness. If you were building the perfect golfer, you'd build Tiger Woods."
That was the ancient history. When he awoke this morning -- June 23, 2014 -- the perfect golfer of 2000 was an imperfect 38 years, five months and 28 days old. It was a significant string of numbers that told how much his life has changed.
In his oft-predicted climb toward golf immortality, with a goal of breaking Nicklaus's record of 18 career victories in the four major tournaments on the PGA calendar, he mostly has been the youthful stalker. The U.S. Open win in 2000 was his third major and it was followed quickly by wins in the British Open and then the PGA in the same year. He was 24 years old and those wins put him well ahead of Nicklaus's record pace. He has stayed ahead for 14 years, younger at each stop along the path.
On July 15, 1978, Nicklaus won the British Open at St. Andrews. It was his 15th major. He was 38 years, five months and 28 days old. Stalled at 14 majors since his last victory at the U.S. Open in 2008 in a playoff with Rocco Mediate six years ago, Woods has lost his cushion. Today is the day of change. The youthful stalker is no more. He is the older man now, chasing the image of a more youthful Nicklaus.
It is a startling moment.
Is the race done? Has Nicklaus already won? Will the record stand at 18, sacrosanct as Babe Ruth's 60 homers for all those years, impervious as Ted Williams' .406 batting average?
This is the riddle that now will unfold.
"I don't think 38 years is the ultimate stopping point for his quest to do what Jack did," 84-year-old golf legend Arnold Palmer said this year about Woods' future. But I think it lessens the possibility of that happening. It's going to be tough. It's going to be tough to keep the concentration and the type of game that is necessary to win majors."
There is time -- Nicklaus did not win another major until he was 40, didn't win his 18th major until he was a surprise champion at the Masters at the age of 46 in 1986 -- but Woods's recurring medical issues make his chase much harder. How long can he stay healthy? Will he have to retool his game again, the way he did after his last knee surgery? He has said he will be "rusty" when he arrives at Congressional. How long will that rust remain?
He is certainly still a great player. He might not have won a major in his last 22 tries, but he did win five tournaments only a year ago, was ranked No. 1 in the world. Can he return to that level in the next year? Maybe the repairs on his back will make him even better. Couldn't that happen? Television sets will be clicked into action every time he walks onto the course to find the answers to these questions. An entire network will follow his every move, a roundtable of well-dressed experts parsing everything from his choice of shoes to the angle of his backswing.
"See how he twitches that third knuckle on his right hand after he makes contact with the golf ball?" well-dressed expert No. 1 will say.
"Different from 2000," well-dressed expert No. 2 will reply. "Much different."
He is 38 years, five months and 28 days old. His personal life has been strung across the electronic clothesline, discussed, derided and ultimately returned to his possession. His body has been handed to the doctors, adjusted and stitched together one more time. The exclamation points of the past have been replaced by the question marks of the future.
There is no doubt the prodigy is the prodigy no more. He has accumulated the obligatory dents and scratches. He catches nobody with their pants down. Younger players, bigger players have arrived who hit the ball as far as he does, sometimes hit it farther. He may not exactly be the junkballer, succeeding on guile, the aging pitcher on the mound, but he also is no longer the fastest gun in town. He needs all his tricks to survive, all the tools in the golfer's toolbox.
The young guy has become Jack Nicklaus. The old guy has become Tiger Woods. He is the underdog now as the chase resumes.
Here we go. Good to have you back, Sir.