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The great unknown

Tiger Woods
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AKRON, OH - AUGUST 05: Nick Watney poses for a portrait prior to the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational on the South Course at Firestone Country Club on August 5, 2009 in Akron, Ohio. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)  - 

I’m going to take up playing high-stakes three-card Monte games with street hustlers. Maybe figure out Stonehenge. Solve the debt ceiling while I’m at it.

Hey, anything is easier than predicting the future of Tiger Woods these days.

Once thought to be the heir apparent to Jack Nicklaus’ throne atop golf’s storied food chain, Woods has instead taken over “Most Enigmatic” honors from the likes of Sergio Garcia, David Duval and John Daly.

On Thursday, Woods announced that he will return to competitive golf after a three-month hiatus at next week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, which means we should expect the unexpected. That’s a cliché, sure, but what isn’t a cliché in Tiger’s life these days? His story is that of the quintessential star athlete. He had everything – fame, popularity, money, bikini-model wife, 2.3 kids and a golf game that even at its most mediocre was better than 98 percent of his peers.

And now? Post-scandal, Woods has become a caricature of his former self. A recent novel attempted to exaggerate the unraveling of a Tiger-like professional golfer, but Tiger’s dissolution has already been the ultimate exaggeration – no fiction necessary.

Then again, those are topics for another time, because we’re here to talk about the one thing Woods first became known for and the one thing he’s rarely done these past two years – and even more rarely done well. He is about to play golf in public for the first time since posting a front-nine 6-over 42 at The Players Championship prior to withdrawing due to an injured left leg and, undoubtedly, a little hurt pride, too.

This is hardly the first time he’s returned from a lengthy absence with few expectations for success from the masses. Three years ago, Woods didn’t play a single tournament between the Masters and the U.S. Open, instead recuperating from minor knee surgery, only to return at Torrey Pines and win his 14th career major title. Last year, after a self-imposed hiatus following his scandal, he made his initial start of the season at Augusta National, finishing in a share of fourth place.

Callow jokes aside, there’s nothing Tiger enjoys more than proving everyone wrong inside the ropes.

It could happen again at Firestone, a course on which Woods has prevailed an eye-popping seven times in 11 career appearances. Though his swing coach Sean Foley has in recent days said he hasn’t worked with his pupil, Tiger previously maintained that he wouldn’t return until he owned a clean bill of health and received the go-ahead from his doctors.

There’s more motivation than simply playing well and earning money and climbing the FedEx Cup standings, though. It’s well within reason to believe that – injured or not – Woods was thoroughly embarrassed by his nine-hole performance at TPC Sawgrass. That’s a feeling he may have endured off the course since Thanksgiving night of 2009, but one which largely escaped him for much of his professional life.

Throw in the fact that in his last full start this season, while he was competing with knee and Achilles injuries that occurred on the 17th hole during Round 3 of the Masters, he still finished T-4 at that event, and suddenly optimism begins to pervade next week’s scenario.

Maybe he’s not as far from success as most people seem to think. Maybe his recent injuries – not emotional issues, personal problems or even technical faults with his swing – have been the only thing holding him back.

Then again, maybe he’ll repeat last year’s performance at Firestone.

Forget those seven titles in Akron. The most recent memory of Woods at this event is the four-day total of 18 over par that left him in a share of 78th place in the 80-man field. He couldn’t hit a fairway, couldn’t find a green and couldn’t hole a putt outside the leather. Coming off this recent absence, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to expect a repeat of such futility next week. 

And therein lies the current most intriguing subplot to the long-running Tiger Woods saga. Whereas we used to ask questions such as, “Are you picking Tiger or the field?” and “By how many strokes do you think Woods will win this week?” he has transformed from the World’s Greatest to the Great Unknown.

You could gaze into your crystal golf ball and tell me that Woods will open with a 62 next week en route to an easy victory and I’d believe you. You could read some “tee” leaves and contend that last year’s debacle was triumphant compared to what will occur this time and I’d believe that, too.

It’s because of this unsolved mystery that even those who swear they’re sick of the 24/7 coverage on Tiger will continue to watch his every move. He may be on the verge of returning to glory or he could be continuing a downward spiral toward mediocrity.

I don’t have the answer and I’m done trying to guess. But hey, at least I’m one heck of a three-card Monte player.