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Some naysayers can't see the forest for the true Woods

The simple question regarding Tiger Woods is what's next?

Nobody knows.

When Woods limped away from The Players Championship on Thursday, dragging a front-nine 42 and a bad leg behind him, it was one more dramatic twist in what recently has become a pretzel-shaped career. He has unwillingly traded dramatic golf moments for plain old drama.

That's not the chosen path but one on which Woods finds himself these days as the calendar count hits 20 months since he last hoisted a trophy.

Seeing Woods at the Stadium Course, chunking pitch shots into trouble, stacking bogeys the way he used to stack birdies and then walking away on a tender leg and what must be a bruised confidence only fueled the fire that seems to constantly burn around him now.

The once-foregone conclusion that Woods would break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championship victories has shifted from certain to uncertain to, at this moment, doubtful. It's not getting any easier, and he's not getting younger.

Would you bet on Tiger getting to 19? He has 14.

I say yes, but my circle of friends is shrinking.

The hope is, at least among those of us who want to see Woods properly finish what he's started, is that these past 20 months will - in the long view - be a dark time in an otherwise glittering career.

Part of Woods' brilliance has been his ability to do the unlikely, whether it's winning the U.S. Open by 15 strokes, holing a seemingly impossible pitch shot at the 16th hole on a Masters Sunday or recapturing his place as the game's best player after all that has happened.

There was reason to think after he tied for fourth in the Masters that Woods was close to becoming Tiger again. He hit 24 of 28 fairways and 31 of 36 greens on the weekend and had he been able to coax a couple more putts into the hole, everything might look different than it does.

He shot 31 on the back nine on Friday at Augusta and 31 on the front side on Sunday when fans started flocking to him like it was free beer night. It felt like it used to feel, the way only Tiger makes it feel on the golf course, at least for a while.

Then we find out he's on a bad leg that kept him out of the Wells Fargo Championship and took him out of The Players Championship.

Geoff Ogilvy missed Quail Hollow because of a bad shoulder and pulled out at The Players. Hardly anyone noticed. Tiger gets hurt and it's international news.

Away from Quail Hollow last week, Woods became part of the story when Bubba Watson opined that Tiger needs to forget all the technical talk about his swing and just go play golf.

Asked Tuesday about Bubba's suggestion, Woods said, "We'll talk."

Bubba might be off the Christmas card list.

There was gossip that the PGA Tour leaned on Woods to play its marquee event this week even though he wasn't entirely healthy. I'm not buying that. Sure, the Tour wanted him to be there, but Tiger went because he wanted to play and to win, not because Tim Finchem asked him to be there.

If Woods wants to win again, he has to play.

Some have suggested Woods was limping away into the sunset when he left The Players Championship. That seems premature. He might be an old 35, but he's still 35, an age at which Ben Hogan had won one of his nine majors.

Talking with CBS announcer David Feherty recently, the subject of Tiger came up.

"People have very short memories," Feherty said of the growing chorus of doubters.

Things never will be like they were with Woods, but it will be nice when the drama subsides. It might take him winning again for that to happen.

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