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Will the old Tiger Woods ever come back?

Two years ago, a few hundred miles down the California coast at Torrey Pines, Tiger Woods made us believe he was invincible.


Playing on a broken leg that required him to occasionally use a golf club as a crutch on slopes, Woods won his third U.S. Open by holing a bumpy birdie putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Rocco Mediate, whom he finally dispatched in a warm, mesmerizing playoff the next day.

Of his 14 major championships, Woods - standing with his wife and children - said the victory at Torrey Pines was No.1 on his list considering all he overcame.

That's the last major championship he won, a drought of two years that's meaningless by almost anyone's standards but his. He missed a couple because of his knee surgery, but given all that's happened since Torrey Pines, where he stood in the game then and where he stands today are two wildly different places.

At some point, the old Tiger is going to come back. One of these weeks, he's going to find what's been missing, having dug the secret out of the dirt again, and he's going to dazzle us the way he used to.

Woods and Pebble Beach have something in common - both can take your breath away.

Ten years ago, we watched in awe at what Woods did to Pebble Beach, blowtorching the record book. This year, we watch out of curiosity, not sure what we're going to see. Before, it seemed to be a question of how he might win. Now it's a question if he can win, and that's an enormous gulf, all formed since November.

During a 30-minute session with the media this week, Woods got off a couple of one liners - "I hit it halfway to Japan," he said when asked what he remembers about his drive into the Pacific Ocean on the 18th hole in the 2000 Open - but the most revealing moment dripped with acid.

Asked if there was any resolution on his marital status, Woods beamed lasers from his eyes and said, "That's none of your business." He didn't raise his voice, but it was as gentle as a chain saw. Perhaps he should practice in advance of his trip to Scotland next month, where the questions will continue.

He wants it to go away, all the attention he's brought upon himself for something other than golf, but it won't. Not for a while still.

But he's here for the golf and for another opportunity to burnish his legend. It's great that he's won all those times at Bay Hill and the Memorial and Firestone, but his legacy is shaped by weeks like this one.

Seeing Woods climbing the hill at the par-5 sixth hole here, its right side spilling down to the water, and catching him silhouetted atop the hill watching his second shot in the air at the spectacular eighth hole are classic images.

He's saying the right things about his game. "It's started to solidify" and "It's coming along," were little indications that he's starting to feel more like Tiger again. But he's said those things before and he missed the weekend at Quail Hollow and withdrew from The Players Championship with a bad neck.

There has been a tendency to micro-analyze his career, particularly in recent months, in part because he long ago reset the bar of expectation. Everything he does - win, lose, rub his neck - is bigger because it's Tiger.

When swing coach Hank Haney stepped aside this year, it was treated like a vice president asking off the president's ticket. It was probably best for both of them. Haney had tired of the scrutiny and Woods might be better off finding his own way for a time.

This was seen as a critical year in Woods' quest to overtake Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championship victories, largely because of Pebble Beach and St. Andrews for the British Open next month. The venues fit him, for sure, but even if he doesn't win a major this year, the likelihood remains that Woods will ultimately surpass the Nicklaus record.

Getting there, as we now know, won't be as easy as it once seemed.