Wiedmer: Is Tiger back for good after Memorial?

Wiedmer: Is Tiger back for good after Memorial?

June 4th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tiger Woods hits out the the sand trap on the 10th hole during the final round of the Memorial golf tournament at the Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, Sunday, June 3, 2012. Woods won the tournament at 9-under par.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Jack Nicklaus, left, talks with Tiger Woods after Woods won the Memorial golf tournament at the Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, Sunday, June 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Jack Nicklaus, left, talks with Tiger Woods after...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Sometimes you need to be the best to articulately praise the best.

So when Jack Nicklaus watched Tiger Woods hit one of those 50-foot flop shots that only Woods can hit on No. 16 at the Memorial, a shot that wound up in the center of the cup, his response was the kind of comment that could one day wind up on Tiger's tombstone.

Said the Golden Bear of His Stripeness's birdie: "The most unbelievable, gutsy shot I've ever seen. Look at the position he was in. If he's short, the tournament's over. If he's long, the tournament's over. He puts it in the hole."

Which, of course, also meant the tournament was over, since Rory Sabbatini -- who was one stroke in the lead before Tiger's birdie, promptly bogeyed to fall one shot behind the world's former No. 1.

Woods then birdied No. 18 to lock up his second Tour win of the year and move to No. 4 in the world rankings.

"I hit it good today," he said after tying Nicklaus for the second-most wins in PGA history, each man now having 73, nine behind Sam Snead's 82. "Never really missed a shot today."

All of which brings us back to the future, to whether or not this signals the probability that Woods will win his 15th major 13 days from today at the U.S. Open at Olympic in San Francisco.

Then again, Tiger's last three tournament finishes prior to the Memorial had been the worst such stretch of his career, two ties for 40th sandwiched around a missed cut.

So both Tiger believers and Tiger haters have plenty of reasons to believe His Stripeness is headed for whatever U.S. Open finish they wish. And that is a phenomenally fortunate thing for professional golf, which hasn't exactly disappeared since Woods won his last major almost four years ago at the U.S. Open, but also becomes much more interesting when he's a favorite.

But can he again be the favorite in a major? After all, this was his fifth victory at the Memorial. His other win this year? Arnold Palmer's tourney, which he's won seven times.

Tiger believers will point to the fact that two of his three previous Open triumphs -- 2008 at Torrey Pines and 2000 at Pebble Beach -- have come in California. Could the Left Coast hold even more magic for Woods?

There's also the way he won on Sunday, coming from behind, which has not always been Tiger's strength on Sunday. Or that he delivered the knockout punch on the 16th hole, just as he did at the Masters in 2005.

Clad in his traditional red Sunday shirt and black slacks, Woods certainly looked and acted like the pre-2009 version of himself, the one unsoiled by an ugly infidelity scandal that destroyed his marriage, wrecked his image and seemingly left his golf game in tatters.

Throw in a few injuries and the fact that at 36 years old he's not as young as he used to be and his struggles become easier to understand.

But there's also something about the truly great athletes of any sport that keeps them coming back for more, often successfully. Nicklaus won his 18th major when he was 46. Andre Agassi won his final tennis major at 32. John Elway won his final Super Bowl at 38.

Woods may not have added a major in four years, but he's also 10 years younger than Nicklaus was when he won the last of his 18 majors. It is folly to believe he has lost his chance to pass the Golden Bear. He may yet pass him before he turns 40.

Yet love Tiger or hate him, even his biggest detractors would have a hard time arguing with His Stripeness's assessment that winning his 73rd tourney at his age, "Is not too shabby."

But to best understand why Woods again matters, one must only listen to his Sunday playing partner Rickie Fowler, who said of that birdie on 16: "He loves being in the moment, and that's where he kind of gets down, focuses and hits those shots. It was fun to see."