By Ben Finfer-
(CBS) Tiger Woods is back. Now he isn’t. Oh wait, is that him? Some fans aren’t really sure.
For many others, the truth is obvious. The man who electrified the sporting world, who turned the worst players on the PGA tour into millionaires, who could do no wrong, is dead.
When the reincarnated Woods won at Bay Hill by five strokes earlier this year there was a rush to announce his triumphant return to dominance. Yet two weeks later he finished 40th at the Masters. He followed that up with a missed cut at Quail Hollow and another 40th place finish at the Players Championship. Hardly the performance of a legend.
His second victory of the season was earlier this month at the Memorial. As vintage as it looked and felt, it was still zombie Tiger.
Remember the real Tiger? He was the best entertainment on television. 14 majors, 142 consecutive cuts made, 623 combined weeks as the top-ranked golfer in the world–as if a ranking was needed.
Courses were re-designed because of him. Attendance and ratings were directly proportional to his existence in a tournament. If he wasn’t playing it was a different event. It was just golf.
You knew when he was in the hunt too. If you didn’t, you were notified by a friend or by a disturbance in the sports Force. And then you watched.
You watched the runaway victory at the 1997 Masters, “The Chip” at Augusta in 2006, the five-round U.S. Open win on a torn ACL and fractured leg in 2008.
That last moment was also the beginning of the end. More so than the one where Woods drove his SUV into a tree. The 2008 U.S. Open win was his most recent in a major. His 14th, four away from Jack Nicklaus’ record. Still.
Following that event, Woods had surgery and didn’t play again the rest of the year. He returned and won a few more times in 2009, but wasn’t the same.
He missed the cut at the Open Championship, a shockingly rare occurrence. He lost to Y.E. Yang at the PGA Championship, for the first time failing to win a major after holding a 54-hole lead. And, of course, he had some issues in his personal life.
It had to end eventually. It was impossible for him to keep up the superhuman pace. Golf isn’t meant for such dominance. It requires a combination of physical and mental toughness that for a while Woods mastered. Not so much anymore.
He is still one of the best players in the world. He has proven this year that he can still win. And perhaps this week he will prove he can still win a major.
But it’s different now. “Tiger versus the field” isn’t the no-brainer it used to be. Neither is breaking Nicklaus’ record. There are too many other players out there with equal or greater skill.
Golf is back to being just golf. And Woods is just another guy playing it. That other guy isn’t coming back.
Ben Finfer is a weekend host and associate producer of The McNeil & Spiegel Show, heard Monday-Friday from 9am-1pm on 670 The Score and 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenFinfer.