Burwell: Tiger stirs the drink in golf world

2012-06-05T00:05:00Z 2012-07-01T20:03:38Z Burwell: Tiger stirs the drink in golf worldBryan Burwell bburwell@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8185 stltoday.com

So stop me if you've heard this conversation before: Tiger Woods is back. No he's not. Yes he is. No. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes, no, yes, no, maybe so ...

Aww heck, who really knows?

This is where we are at the career midterm of the world's most famous golfer, baying impatiently at our television big screens. Yes, no, maybe so. So there we were on again on Sunday, watching as Woods rekindled some of his old golf magic with unforgettable highlights like that exhilarating flop shot on the 16th hole at Muirfield, winning Jack Nicklaus' Memorial tournament and tying the Golden Bear for second place on the PGA's all-time career victory list. With the U.S. Open only 10 days away, we're playing everyone's favorite golf parlor game: deciding whether or not the old Tiger is alive again or a long-lost relic that can never be restored to its former pristine condition.

One of the first questions asked of Tiger in his post-match news conference on Sunday was if he thought this impressive victory at Jack's tournament was the declarative moment that proved the old Tiger was back. Wisely, Woods offered little more insight than a mischievous smile and a vague answer.

"I'll let you guys figure that out," he said.

I have a better idea. Let's let Tiger figure it out first.

Let's let him go to San Francisco and work his way around that daunting and unpredictable Olympic course. Let's let him get to the Father's Day weekend in contention and striking distance of his 15th major title before we determine anything more about his athletic life than he seems to be heading in the right direction.

Instead, I will bat around another idea for you to dwell on.

Of all the smart, provocative, mean-spirited, tawdry, embarrassing, funny, wonderful, uncomfortable, revelatory, distasteful and well-deserved barbs and insights that have been hurled his way since his rather public fall from grace, possibly the dumbest of them all was insinuation by some Woods haters that he no longer mattered.

On Sunday with Woods roaring down the back nine at Muirfield, CBS pulled in its highest-rated final round for the Memorial tournament in eight years. The 3.8 rating was up a staggering 138 percent from last year when Steve Stricker won it. As Woods was closing in on the title over the last four holes, the ratings spiked up to 5.7 over the last half-hour of the broadcast.

Good or bad, Woods has always been must-see TV. There's a reason why in any tournament Woods has entered, ESPN is smart enough to put his name and score up on every leaderboard and highlight they show on Sports Center. Love him or hate him, he is still as significant a figure in any sport that we have.

His victory moved him up to the No. 4 ranked golfer in the world, and tied Nicklaus for No. 2 overall in career PGA tour victories. Woods did it at age 36, Jack didn't win his 73rd until he was 46.

Now comes the hard stuff. Before we can be sure that he'll catch Jack for the only record that really matters — Nicklaus' record for major victories (Tiger trails Nicklaus' 18 major wins with 14), I want to see him regain his consistency. Do it again and again and again, just like the old days. This season, Woods has already flirted with us more than a few times. Two weeks before the Masters he won at Bay Hill and had anyone with a microphone or column space predicting he would be the odds-on favorite at the Masters.

Of course he got to Augusta and got chewed up, finished a disappointing 40th, then struggled to make the cut at the Players Championship.

So the only thing that winning at Memorial did for me was verify what I've always believed. No matter how many swing changes he makes, no matter how messed up his personal life got, Woods is still the golfer who moves the TV needle the most, still creates the jet engine roars from the galleries when he gets hot and still makes it tempting to choose him over the field in any tournament he enters.

But let's allow that to happen. I can wait 10 more days until the U.S. Open actually starts before I have to rush to some judgment on whether Woods can win his next major. But now at least we can stop with the silliness that he no longer has a chance. He's still too young, too talented, still capable of those old Tiger muscle memories for us to write him off.

I get why some people don't like him. I get why some people even root against him. But how do you write off a man who was (and might soon be again) the world's most popular athlete? How do you write off someone who despite all the rough spots in his life and game managed to stay in the Top 20 and now has climbed back within striking distance of No. 1 in the world again?

And how do you write off a golfer who can produce a blitz like he produced on the back nine at Muirfield, including that wedge shot on No. 16?

In this maddening and challenging game, there are all kinds of shots that determine the worth of a golfer. Some shots require the simple mechanics honed from a lifetime of muscle memory. Most competent golfers can make shots like this. Then there are the extraordinary shots that require rare skill or great imagination to shape it around a tree, out of a hazard or make it backspin like a top.

Then there are the rarest shots of them all, the ones that require not only an inventor's imagination, but a gambler's incredible guts. That's what made Woods' shot on 16 so special. It took ridiculous nerve to dare pull it off because of all wrong things that could have happened.

"That was the most unbelievable, gutsy shot I've ever seen," Nicklaus said. "If he's short, the tournament is over. If he's long, the tournament is over. He puts it in the hole."

I don't know if he'll catch Nicklaus on the major victory list, but when you see shots like that, it certainly makes you think anything's possible. On Sunday when reporters asked Jack if he's changed his mind about whether Tiger will eventually catch him, the Golden Bear just smiled.

"Why would I?" he said. "I think he can do it."

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Bryan Burwell

Bryan Burwell covers a wide spectrum of sports as a columnist for the Post-Dispatch.

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