Tiger: I’m BACK!

2011-08-06 00:00

WITH a win drought that has stretched to 22 months and four more Major titles needed to match the all-time record 18 won by Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods does not lack for motivation.

The 35-year-old superstar, coming off left knee and Achilles tendon injuries that have kept him sidelined or ineffective since April, is excited about being healthy to face golf’s rising stars in next week’s PGA Championship in Atlanta.

“Trying to beat these boys, that’s fun,” Woods said. “Getting out there and trying to win golf tournaments, being there with a chance to win, whether you win or fail, just being there is just a rush.”

The former world No. 1, who has slid to 28th in the rankings, has not won any event since the Australian Masters in November 2009, just before the sex scandal that destroyed his marriage and iconic image as a product pitchman.

Woods missed the U.S. and British Opens, two chances to close the gap on Nicklaus in the quest that has defined his golfing life. But Woods has rested and become healthy, giving him a better chance at taking his fifth PGA crown.

“How I got to 14 is just taking it one at a time and trying to peak for each one,” Woods said. “Obviously my timetable isn’t very long to try and peak for the last one here, but it is what it is, and I’ll just try and get it going.”

Rising U.S. star Hunter Mahan compares Woods to retired NBA legend Michael Jordan and warns stars like reigning U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy and his fellow young guns that they have not seen Woods at his best.

“Some of the young guys, they’ve never seen Tiger Woods play Tiger Woods golf. They’ve never even come close to seeing it,” Mahan said.

“I don’t think he has to prove anything, but I think he’s one of those guys kind of like Jordan: he takes every single thing that someone says and he’s going to turn it into this massive gas on a fire that he’s got burning right now. I think he’s ready. I think he’s so eager.

“A motivated Tiger and someone who has a challenge in front of him is a good thing for him. It’s a good thing for us, too, because we all want to play against the best in the world, and he’s in that category.”

Woods last won a Major title at the 2008 U.S. Open when he limped through a play-off. Familiar foes such as Major champions Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen have given way to a new generation of rivals.

“The game is probably switching a little bit,” Woods said. “You had a ton of years there where it was going to be Phil, myself, Vijay, Ernie, Goose, Jim, we were all winning a bunch of the tournaments. Now there’s a lot of new guys.

“The guys who were playing really well there from my generation are now in their 40s. We were going at it for basically 15 years. Now we’re starting to see guys in their 20s winning golf tournaments. There is certainly a switch.”

Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke, who won last month’s British Open at 41, is among those who hopes Woods returns at peak form.

“Beneath all the stuff that’s happened, self-inflicted or otherwise, he’s essentially a really good kid — a man — beneath everything,” Clarke said.

“He was arguably the best player the game has ever seen. You’ve got Jack and Tiger. He has been the best player in the world and I just genuinely hope he gets his game back up to the level that it was before because it was awesome.”

World No. 1 Luke Donald, still chasing his first Major triumph, has seen Woods battle back from injury before with his hunger for victory unabated.

“His expectation is to win,” Donald said. “Tiger has done it a few times. He’s obviously been away through injury a few times so he’s getting used to it. Obviously he always sets his standards very high. That’s the way he should be.”

McIlroy has resisted the comparisons to Woods and Nicklaus, but many see the young player from Northern Ireland as the fresh-faced prodigy Woods was in 2001, when he held all four Major titles at once.

“I’ve never paid attention to the comparisons or potential, whether it be Tiger’s 14 or Jack’s 18 or whatever,” he said. “All I’m doing is looking for my second Major and my fourth career win.

“I think it’s great for golf, his return. It’s something you should relish and say if Tiger does come back and play his best, that’s the benchmark that I’m going to try and achieve.

“I wouldn’t use the word ’scary’ but it would be maybe a little intimidating if you knew for sure that he was going to come back and play the way he did in 2000 or 2001, but who knows for sure what way the game is going to go.”

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