With the Masters coming up next weekend, and Tiger Woods finally picking up his first PGA tour win in almost three years last weekend out in Bay Hill, people have begun to wonder if we might finally be seeing the return of the old Tiger Woods, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.
It's a question that will be asked many times in the next week, and the commentators are getting warmed up with their answers. ESPN and CBS will split the broadcast duties for the Masters, and several ESPN analysts spoke this week about Tiger and his chances of getting a step closer to Jack Nicklaus and his all-time record of career Majors won.
Even with Rory McIlroy coming off a tremendous year, and returning to the scene of his epic meltdown a year ago, the hottest topic is Tiger.
To say that Paul Azinger is looking forward to this tournament is an understatement."I'm pumped because I think honestly this is going to be one of the most anticipated Masters in a long time," he says, "and really I think the whole Tiger Woods winning at Bay Hill was huge. He's going to be the most confident player in the field. He'll probably come off as a favorite ahead of Rory McIlroy and whoever is ranked ahead of him."
Azinger continues, "There is a lot of anticipation for this Masters. Tiger with the convergence of his physical and mental aspect to him now. You think about it... he finished fourth two years in a row at Augusta really where his head wasn't in the game, and he had a bad left knee and he was in the midst of a colossal swing change. He still finished in the top 5 at this event.
"Who knows; he's coming in the most confident player, and if his mind is like it was at Bay Hill and he's physically even close to where he was, he might run off and hide from this field."
Woods is no longer the young phenom we saw take the world by storm in the 1997 Masters, shooting a -18 for the tournament. But does he have enough left to make that charge to Nicklaus? Paul North thinks so. "You know, can Tiger do it? I always felt like if he got healthy, he had a chance. You know, a lot of people wrote him off right away when he struggled for a while. Every great player we've ever had and seen in our game has gone through a period of time where they've struggled, a year, maybe a season's worth or a couple of years even, and they get it back together. Look at what Vijay Singh accomplished after 35, look at what Steve Stricker has done after 35. There's a lot of wins out there for him."
Curtis Strange believes that with the win at Bay Hill, Woods could be on the cusp of starting a whole new portion of his career. "One, it might be a little bit of an overstatement, but one, this is the start of his second career because of getting over the shame, getting over the past, starting anew, and also starting anew with new mechanics and a new golf swing. It solidifies his belief in Sean Foley. I think it was huge, huge for him, and then also I think now we can move on."
Strange later added I think what I saw last weekend was huge for me, too. I saw the guy who was comfortable in his own skin, and I saw a guy who was comfortable with his golf swing, and I'm not one to embellish too much, but I really think ‑‑ it would be shocking to me if he wasn't in the mix, and I wouldn't bet against him." However, Strange thinks there is still one thing missing in Tiger's game. "...the intimidation factor isn't there yet."
Intimidation factor? Azinger explains "Tiger at his best was unbeatable. You can't play defense in golf. I think the one element of intimidation that Tiger had on everybody pre‑accident, pre‑fire hydrant, was that when he walked on that tee on Sunday, and I've said this before, black pants and a shirt the color of blood, you looked at him like he was the most disciplined player by far, maybe the most disciplined athlete, and at times maybe the most disciplined person."
As the world found out, however, Tiger was not the most disciplined person, and he is still dealing with the aftermath of that. Azinger thinks that Tiger is still dealing with the shame of what happened to him, but that he is coming around and that if he is on, he is still unbeatable. "...if he's clicking on all cylinders, he will not lose the tournament. It's just as simple as that. Nobody can stop him. If he has that convergence of the mental part and the physical part like he did at Bay Hill, if McDowell doesn't make three‑putts over 40 feet long, Tiger wins Bay Hill by eight.
"I'm just saying there's no stopping him. It wasn't about whether or not he was intimidating or whether or not anybody ‑‑ is anybody as good as he is at age 36 or 37? Is anybody as good as he is when he's good, and I think the answer is no."
So does the 2012 Masters mark the return of Tiger Woods to the level of winning Major Championships? I look forward to finding out.