By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Make no mistake about it, Tiger Woods is back.
He won the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, merely the eighth time he has won the tournament associated with the most charismatic player in the history of the game.
All Woods has done this year is win three of the four medal-play events he has entered this season.
Last year he was the No. 2 player in the world, just behind a very deserving Rory McIlroy. The win at Arnie’s event catapulted Woods back into the No. 1 spot in the world. Based on the way he has played the last two years, it’s going to take a sensational effort by McIlroy to take it back from him.
McIlroy is really the only golfer capable of competing with Woods on a long-term basis. Golfers like Brandt Snedeker, Phil Mickelson, Luke Donald, Justin Rose and Bubba Watson are capable of winning tournaments and playing exceptional golf, but they don’t have the characteristics needed to beat Tiger consistently.
There is little doubt that Tiger walks with the greats who ever played the game. You want to put together an all-time foursome of the game’s best players? Tiger’s in it and he’s not bringing up the rear.
Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones would join Tiger. Nicklaus would have the honors at the first tee and then Tiger would get a chance to tee it up. A steaming Hogan would be up next, followed by the redoubtable Jones.
Tiger is healthy again and couldn’t be in a better state of mind with the Masters approaching. Even casual golf fans know that winning major titles has long been Woods’ primary goal. He has 14 to his credit, second behind Nicklaus, but he has been stuck at that number since his playoff victory over Rocco Mediate in the 2008 U.S. Open.
Woods was not at his best in that tournament as he would go under the knife shortly thereafter because of his damaged knee, but it demonstrated his toughness and desire.
Woods is healthy, strong and in a great state of mind. The golf cognoscenti have certainly taken notice of his ascent back to the top, but they are hesitant to say he is fully back in form until he wins a major.
Don’t buy into that line of thinking. Golf analysts are a gossipy group. The same mouthpieces that anointed Tiger in the first place seemed to revel in his embarrassment and downfall when his off-the-course meanderings went public and his ranking tumbled.
No analyst talks out of both sides of his mouth more than Johnny Miller. The former U.S. Open winner occupies the first chair on NBC’s broadcasts and he has no problems breaking down Tiger from a technical point of view.
But he is only too happy to bring up Woods’ past issues and question whether he will ever be the golfer that he was two sentences after praising his game. There’s a snide nature to Miller’s analysis that comes across as jealousy.
Miller will not broadcast the Masters since it has long been a CBS property.
Woods’ past transgressions don’t have to be brought up in every tournament he plays.
Whether Woods wins the Masters or not, his game is back in top shape. When he is at his best, he is capable of dominating.
That means that 2013 is the year he returns to the winner’s circle in the majors. Perhaps the Masters, but if not, he will get his 15th major title at the U.S. Open, British Open or PGA.
The game is much better for it. Woods is the second-best golfer ever and he still has a chance to climb past Nicklaus.
Tiger Woods at his best is must-watch television.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.