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Tiger's progress is a process

Tiger Woods
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The following words were going to be written whether Tiger Woods ran away with the Australian Open title or – as was the case – only made a serious run at claiming his first victory in two years: This performance was another step in the right direction.

During his lengthy absence from the winner’s podium, Woods has repeatedly talked about the “process” of returning to elite form. Though he didn’t create the term, he has espoused its importance – and for good reason.

The first step of this process was putting together short stretches in which he flashed his previous brilliance, perhaps a four-birdies-in-five-holes output that would at least whet the appetite of the masses. The next step was producing full rounds of proficient, mistake-free golf and posting a solid number.

He eclipsed the next step this past weekend in Sydney, which included both backing up one good round with another and bouncing back from a poor round with a positive one. His opening-round 68 was followed by a 67 the next day; a third-round 75 was eclipsed by another 67 on the final day. In the end, it resulted in a solo third-place result.

Reason for encouragement, sure, but still part of the process, as Woods himself acknowledged afterward.

“I’ve just got to keep plugging along,” he explained. “I’m showing some progress.”

Others on Team Tiger remain similarly cautiously optimistic. A text message from instructor Sean Foley at the midpoint of the Aussie Open, when Woods led by a stroke, only allowed: “He has been working hard. Lots of work ahead of us, however.”

Discussion: How will Tiger's week be viewed?

There are undoubtedly more steps in the process. The next would be putting together four consecutive stellar rounds at one tournament, followed by backing up a positive performance with another one in his next start. It’s at that point when the “Old Tiger” will be fully reverted to his past form.

That doesn’t halt the influx of “Is he back?” questions that permeate every time he plays well and once again surfaced during his latest appearance. If the tone surrounding Woods’ week had a been-there, done-that type of feel, there’s good reason for it.

When he returned from his post-scandal self-imposed leave of absence at last year’s Masters, many were quick to declare him 'back.' They we're right – literally, at least – and it appeared his game may have been back as well, based on a fourth-place finish.

It wasn’t that easy, though, as Woods struggled in ensuing starts, leaving such status very much in doubt. Still, every time he showed glimpses of the past, the subject was broached.

At the U.S. Open, where he posted a glorious back-nine 31 in the third round, only to give way to disappointment the next day … at the Australian Masters, where a late rally gave him a share of fourth place ... at the Chevron World Challenge, where a miraculous charge by Graeme McDowell kept him from winning ... at the Masters (again), where he actually led during the final round before finishing fourth (again).

Of course, in order to fully answer the “Is he back?” query, we need to address the true meaning of that insinuation. Is it dominating major championships by double-digit win totals again? Prevailing in 28 percent of his starts? Or regaining the No. 1 ranking in the world?

Don’t expect Woods to once again conquer major fields like he did in his historic season of 2000, but then again, don’t expect anyone else to accomplish that, either. The bar is only raised so high because he had a few once-in-a-lifetime performances twice in a summer.

Regaining his previous victory percentage won’t be any easier, but he needs the first one before he can even think about winning them in bunches. Making it even tougher is the fact that he now plays in fewer tournaments and his propensity for only competing against the most elite fields shouldn’t help this cause.

As for the No. 1 ranking, well, that’s still a long way from happening, but there is reason for optimism. On the two-year OWGR rolling calendar, he won’t lose any more victories, because there are none to be lost. Starting at 58th prior to playing Down Under, Woods could ascend the list in a hurry with a few strong results – as we’ve seen from other players in his position or lower recently – and he’s well aware of that impact.

“I had a really good year two years ago in ’09 where I think I won six or seven tournaments around the world, so those points all came off this year and I didn’t make any points back,” he said. “So next year’s going to be a fun year, because basically I have nothing and I’m not really losing any points. So I’ll have nothing but positive gains next year. By playing well, by winning golf tournaments, I’ll climb the world ranking.”

Whether climbing the world ranking, winning a singular tournament title or once again dominating the game’s landscape at its most elite level means he’s “back,” well, that can be left open to interpretation.

What we do know is that according to Woods, there will be no eureka moment. As he keeps saying, this is all part of the process – and in his latest start this past weekend, the process progressed nicely.

Watch wall-to-wall coverage of the Presidents Cup live on Golf Channel beginning Monday at 6PM. Tournament air times: Golf Channel Wednesday 9PM-2AM, Thursday 7:30PM-2AM, Friday 3PM-2AM and Saturday 6:30PM-12:30AM. NBC coverage Saturday at 8AM and Sunday at noon. (Note: all times are ET)