Tiger Woods: Back and Better Than Ever or Just Another PGA Tour Player?

Todd PatakyCorrespondent IJuly 9, 2012

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, WV - JULY 6: Tiger Woods hits his tee shot on the 12th hole during the second round of the Greenbrier Classic at the Old White TPC on July 6, 2012 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
Hunter Martin/Getty Images

All the talk in golf is around the same guy is has been around for the last 16 years: Tiger Woods.

Questions abound about the state of his game and his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 professional major championships.

The biggest question lately is: Is Tiger back? To answer that question, one must look at where he came from.

Tiger is second on the list of most professional majors won with 14 and second in most wins on the PGA Tour, but he has not won a major since his remarkable win over Rocco Mediate at the 2008 U.S. Open. That marks the longest stretch he has gone without winning a major since he won his first at the 1997 Masters.

Since that dramatic, overpowering win at Augusta, Tiger became the only man to hold all four modern major championships at one time (2000 U.S. Open through 2001 Masters). This was dubbed the "Tiger Slam."

Tiger has gone through two memorable slumps before, both in conjunction with major swing changes.

After having decimated the field at the Masters in 1997 and racking up three more wins that year, Tiger tore his swing apart and rebuilt it from the ground up. During that process, he won once in 1998.

The result of those swing changes was maybe the best sustained stretch of golf the world has ever seen. Tiger won 27 times, including seven majors during the 1999-2002 seasons. That would be a Hall of Fame career for most other players.

The next "slump" came during the 2003-04 seasons, when he "only" won six times but had no majors.

He followed that low period with 25 wins (six majors) over the next four seasons.

Currently, he has nine wins in the last four seasons with no majors. For anyone else, that is a great stretch, but not for Tiger.

For the man whose stated goal is to surpass Jack Nicklaus' record for major wins, not winning a major for four years has to feel like a huge slump.

That being said, during this time, Tiger tied, and then surpassed, Jack for second on the PGA Tour career wins list. He even had the sense of theatricality to tie Jack at Jack's own event, The Memorial.

But I think it is safe to say that Tiger is not back. Moreover, I think it is safe to say that he never will be. In order for him to get back to where he was, he would have to play the way he did. I, for one, do not think that level of play will ever be seen again, from anyone.

Tiger held the lead at the U.S. Open at the start of Saturday's play but collapsed and was a non-factor on the weekend. He won his own tournament this year in come-from-behind fashion, and then he missed the cut the next week. I think those three incidents speak volumes about his game.

The old Tiger would never have lost a lead at the U.S.Open. Indeed, he might have been the greatest front-runner the game has ever seen. We all know the history. Fifteen times he has taken at least a share of the lead into the final day at a major, and he won 14 of them.

By the same token, we are not used to Tiger having to come from behind to win. That he did it at the AT&T National only tells us that his days of playing lights-out for four days are not back.

And Tiger missing the cut at a tournament won by Ted Potter, Jr. (who?) over Troy Kelly (seriously, who?) would have been inconceivable pre-2008.

The days of Tiger, or any man, dominating the PGA Tour like Tiger did are over. I'm not saying he won't win more majors. I'm not saying he won't break Jack's record, but every passing major he doesn't win only reminds us of how truly special his level of play was when he was at the peak of his powers.

Tiger is not back, and more importantly, he never will be.