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Woods will pick up where he left off

Wed., March 17, 2010, midnight

Public perception wise, Tiger Woods is what today? Less than half the man he was six months ago?

Not even 2 percent of the father?

Approximately 0 percent of the husband?

But guess what? Soon, sooner than seems possible, sooner than seems right, Woods will be 100 percent of the golfer he was before being exposed as a weekend hacker of a human being.

He remains the face of his sport, even as we realize his face is a facade. He is still ranked first in the world, even if he ranks last in his own home. He will continue to intimidate every opponent, even if he’s afraid to confront the first question.

Tiger Woods, the player, will be as good as he was – probably even better. We’re guessing he believes this.

He will be crushing the field, putting the Matt Kuchars, Dustin Johnsons and Ben Cranes back where they belong. We’re certain they believe this.

“He won’t be any easier to beat,” said Steve Stricker, one of the players who has emerged most in Woods’ absence.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins just because he’s that type of guy,” said Trevor Immelman, one of the players who has felt Woods’ presence.

“If he wins the Masters, it will not be a surprise to me,” said Rocco Mediate, one of the players who has lost to Woods in head-to-head play.

The prediction here is that Woods will not win his 2010 debut. Golf generally isn’t that forgiving. Even for the most elite players, the game demands a minimum commitment to live competition.

But we wouldn’t bet against Woods, wouldn’t even bet one of your paychecks. An hour after the announcement Tuesday about his pending return, Woods was installed as the 4-1 favorite to win the Masters by a British bookmaker.

He isn’t going to arrive at the first tee at Augusta National unprepared. Rest assured that Woods has been hitting the range, working on his short game, probably even fist-pumping in the bathroom mirror.

When it comes to golf, Woods is so into preparation that he lays out his outfits the night before.

And recall, please, that his first Masters victory came by a laughable margin of 12 strokes.

That’s one of the things to keep in mind during this discussion. It’s not like Woods is just a little better than everyone else. He is significantly superior in every aspect of this game – physically and, more important, mentally.

That’s another thing to remember. There isn’t a golfer on Earth better equipped to handle the psychological challenge awaiting Woods than Woods himself.

The notion that his public infidelity somehow will disrupt his concentration while standing over a 6-footer for par is ridiculous.

We don’t know about Woods’ involvement with that doctor allegedly into supplying performance-enhancers, but we do believe this guy’s synapses could be on steroids.

The only way US Weekly gets in Woods’ way on the course is if US Weekly runs over him in a cart. As we’ve learned, almost nothing can stop TMZ’s sleaze-seeking cameras. Incredibly, though, those thin ropes that corral the gallery will suffice.

We’ve seen it so many times, the athletic arena doubling as safe harbor. Brett Favre after his father’s death. Michael Jordan while battling the flu. The ’09 Angels rallying from a real-world loss.

We just saw it again in the Olympics, where Canada’s Joannie Rochette lost her mother but, just days later, found the rest of her world on an ice rink, of all places.

Remember the 2003-04 Lakers? One of their players spent part of that season flying back and forth to Eagle, Colo., sometimes even on days of games.

“The basketball,” Kobe Bryant said after one of those days, after scoring 36 points in a victory over Sacramento, “is like a getaway.”

Only one game is more solitary than golf, but no one wants to stand around and watch someone play solitaire.

The crowds following Woods in the coming months, conversely, will be massive. Once between those ropes, however, it will be just him and his thoughts – two of the most powerful forces in sports.

“He seems to be able to take a bunch of time off and pop right up there and be the same old guy,” Jim Furyk said. “Not many players … are actually capable of that. But he does it well.”

The image will take more rehabilitation. So will the reputation and the man himself. Eventually, Woods will be back as completely as humanly possible, as completely as Bryant is back today.

But there is absolutely nothing to suggest Tiger Woods, the player, won’t make it back to being Tiger Woods, history’s best player. And soon, very, very soon.


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