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What’s next for Tiger Woods?

By Carl Steward, The Oakland Tribune –

He’s healthy. He’s hungry. He’s hot.

Tiger Woods comes to the Olympic Club this week having recaptured much of the long-misplaced skill, swagger and intimidating aura that some thought was lost forever.

His reconstructed swing is starting to look sweet. His once legendary putter, while still betraying him at times, is beginning to revert to divining-rod form.

After 3½ years of wandering in a competitive desert, Woods has won twice in 2012, including Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial tournament last weekend. He nearly won a third by shooting a final-round 62 that left him a stroke short of his anointed heir apparent, Rory McIlroy. He was in contention at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am until Phil Mickelson decided to shoot one of the best rounds of his life.

In the World Golf Rankings, Woods has soared from a career low of No. 58 in November to his current position of No. 4 on the strength of a Memorial win that tied him with Nicklaus for second on the all-time PGA Tour victory list with 73.

All this evidence points to one last question in the completion of his comeback — can he still win a major? More to the point, have the stars properly aligned for Woods to win this week’s U.S. Open at Olympic?

After his win at Memorial, Woods was predictably evasive when asked if he thought he was all the way back.

“I won,” he said with a smile. “I’m sure by Tuesday I’ll be retired and done, and then by the time I tee it up at the U.S. Open, it might be something different. But I’ll let you guys figure that out.”

The gentle sarcasm suggested Woods knows the world is watching and isn’t yet convinced. To be sure, most observers are still a bit wary, based on the fact Woods looked ready to take the Masters by storm after winning Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill event two weeks prior to Augusta. He didn’t. He shot 5 over, didn’t break par in any of his four rounds and tied for 40th.

NBC analyst Johnny Miller saw something disturbing at the Masters that had nothing to do with Woods’ mechanics or mind-set.

“It was a shock to me because it was obviously nerves at Augusta,” Miller said. “In his whole career, nerves never had anything to do with how he performed. So I don’t know what to think of Tiger Woods at the Open.”

In fairness, Miller made that statement before Woods won at the Memorial. But it’s clear former players still want to see Woods overcome the final hurdle of winning a major before pronouncing him fully indomitable once again.

“Deep down inside me to say he’s back, yeah, I think he’d have to win a major first,” said ESPN commentator Curtis Strange, a two-time Open winner.

Paul Azinger believes it’s still difficult for people to comprehend the magnitude of Woods’ comeback considering all that’s happened to him since his Open win at Torrey Pines in 2008 — his injuries, his public sex scandal, his divorce, his swing changes and the replacement of both his swing coach and caddie.

“Just from firsthand experience, coming back from cancer when I was 33 years old, I played for six years before I won a tournament,” Azinger said. “It wasn’t until I finally won a tournament that people stopped asking what percent back am I. And Tiger plays at a whole other level.”

Indeed, it’s still not enough that Woods has finally won again. It’s the majors that count for him, and he’s still stuck at 14, four behind Nicklaus’ record. Once seemingly a lock to break that mark, there is considerable doubt that he can do it now that he’s 36 years old.

Just the stakes for winning another Open are enormous for Woods, and not just because it’s been four years since he won the last one, which was also his last majors triumph. A win would give him four Open titles, tying him with Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones and Willie Anderson for the most ever.

Woods certainly has time. Hogan won six majors after he was 36 — three of them as a 40-year-old — and that was after a car crash in which he was gravely injured. Sam Snead won 17 titles after age 40, including two majors. Nicklaus won the Masters at 46. On the flip side, Palmer won his last major at 34.

Perhaps Nicklaus’ opinion on Woods’ immediate future — specifically at Olympic — carries the most weight.

“I suspect No. 15 will come for Tiger Woods in about two weeks,” Nicklaus said at the Memorial trophy presentation. “If he drives the ball this way, and plays this way, I’m sure it will. And if not, it will surprise me greatly.”

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