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Pressure cooker

Tiger Woods
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He beat 17 guys, several of whom came from the other side of the earth to play in his own Chevron World Challenge, so before we declare Tiger Woods as ‘back’ let us impart a breath of perspective at the risk of coming off like a frog in the punchbowl. That said, Woods’ 72nd-hole victory over Zach Johnson was inspiring stuff: a clutch 6-footer for birdie at the buzzer after holing at 15-footer for birdie at the 17th.

Coming off the final day at the Presidents Cup, where Woods demolished Aaron Baddeley in singles and clearly asserted himself as the best player on the grounds, we’re seeing positive momentum for the first time in two years. We’re seeing evidence that Eldrick Almighty has resumed his climb to the top of Mount Nicklaus, where 18 major titles has long resided as the game’s most glorious all-time record.

What looked like a formality ran into a wall of dysfunctionality. Woods’ 2 ½ year majorless streak basically matches the longest such drought in his remarkable career. Plenty of people will squeeze every last drop of optimism out of the Chevron triumph, which only suggests that hope is alive and well, and yes, Tiger’s chances of returning to golf’s pinnacle look much, much better than they did a few weeks ago.

Streak snapper: Tiger finally wins again

Still, he beat 17 guys. Almost six threesomes. All are decorated players, but the Chevron field is so small that awarding world ranking points at the event is both ludicrous and unfair. Maybe Tiger would have beaten 217 guys Sunday or maybe he would have finished third behind Y.E. Yang and Heath Slocum. The fact that he Woods excelled under late-Sunday pressure, chased down Johnson – one of the toughest competitors anywhere – and claimed a first-place check are all huge positives.

If you want to get carried away about future ramifications, knock yourself out. Tiger almost won this same tournament last year, finishing second only after Graeme McDowell broke out his Dude-in-the-Red-Shirt impersonation, and I distinctly recall hearing a strong ‘he’s back!’ reverb after that solid performance. I’d tell you it is what it is, but that line has been uttered to death. Besides, this is more than that.

Woods has finished the most disappointing season of his career on a very high note. He will celebrate his 36th birthday (Dec. 30) having won the last tournament in which he played, which should send him into 2012 emotionally refreshed and competitively invigorated. For the most part, he hit the ball nicely at the Chevron. He economized strokes over the weekend and didn’t let little mistakes become big ones.

He also reminded everyone how great he can be with the game on the line, how mental toughness is a bit like riding a bike. All good signs, all reasons to believe, but the road remains long, the mountain still luminous in the distance. I’ve always insisted on measuring Woods’ comeback by the standards he attained as the best player ever, not some scratch handicap with a couple of club championships. Out of respect to the guy with 14 big trophies and dozens and dozens of smaller ones, such a mindset isn’t just healthy. It is necessary.