James Lawton: Tiger Woods' return to world No 1 among his greatest achievement

The difficult part is fighting hard enough to get back when the great moment has passed

The Tiger’s attempt to become once again the world’s top-ranked golfer plainly comes without guarantees in Florida today, even though he stole another birdie under the threat of lightning that last night halted his latest march towards the light.

True, he has the thunderous endorsement of the great Arnold Palmer, who claims that we have among us again the player who as a 21-year-old not only won his first Green Jacket at Augusta but redefined the game.

True, also, is the compelling evidence that Woods' relationship with Lindsey Vonn, the heroine of American downhill skiing, has restored some vital levels of the self-regard that disintegrated so profoundly when his private life was exposed as a squalid parody of the image so relentlessly fashioned by his corporate sponsors.

Yet the hazards, as he pursues his third title of the infant season and Rory McIlroy's No 1 position he occupied for record periods, are still apparent enough. A three-stroke lead in the final round used to be the Tiger's sure-fire prelude to the kill. This morning that might just be a presumption running slightly ahead of itself.

If his putter has become once more a potentially decisive instrument in the crucial middle-distances, his driving is still the matter of chance and speculation which so inhibited him last summer when the Open appeared to lie at his mercy. No, not all of the old certainties are back in place.

However something is and so glorious it flies beyond the outcome of the Bay Hill tournament today.

It is the unique charge which comes when the greatest of champions declare that they have ransacked all of their talent, all of their old nerve and instinct to win, and that they are contending again for the highest prize.

It doesn't have to be complete restoration of the old powers, in most cases it cannot be simply because of the passage of years and the erosion of certain talents which announce themselves in the beautifully uncomplicated first flush of youth.

When Muhammad Ali flew to Africa to outwit and outbox, in the most unpredictable way, the awesomely powerful George Foreman in 1974 he wasn't the fighter who announced himself as Cassius Marcellus Clay on his way to overwhelming another ogre, Sonny Liston a decade earlier. He wasn't so quick or so dazzling or so charmed. He was a fighter who had absorbed some bad days, some jolting defeats, but had retained enough of his will, and of his belief that he could out-think and outperform any man alive, and in the process make an indelible imprint on sports history.

This is the assignment the Tiger has set himself as he works to underpin his own belief that golf was too quick to the conclusion that his chances of winning the five more majors that would carry him past Nicklaus's record mark of 18 had gone forever.

At 37, Tiger is nine years younger than Nicklaus when he won his last major at Augusta in 1986, and if the task is no longer anything like the formality it once seemed, if another generation led by McIlroy no longer holds him in the awe an earlier one did, there is no question that the worst possibility has been avoided.

Ever since Woods drove into a fire hydrant on Thanksgiving night three and a half years ago the conviction has hardened that the days of his supreme ability to intimidate all of his rivals have passed beyond recall. Yet on the approach to the Masters next month, the idea of the Tiger collecting his fifth Green Jacket has regained a credence that is surely proofed against a disappointing result today.

The worst has simply not happened. Tiger has not slipped remorselessly into that bad place reserved for golfers who can no longer persuade themselves that they belong among the best in the world. Ian Baker-Finch, a fine Open champion, lost that conviction so profoundly that when he walked to the tee it was hard not to avert your eyes. David Duval, in his natural-born killer dark shades, seemed to be building an empire to rival that of the Tiger's. But his fall has been vertiginous. He talks about it with a sad but brilliant understanding of life's treacheries. Tiger, on the other hand, has fought on with a resilience some thought was beyond him.

He may now be close to a working example of a claim made by Sir Nick Faldo, one he says that few people inside or out of the ropes of a major tournament quite understand. Faldo, the winner of six major tournaments and arguably the embodiment of what can be achieved by sheer willpower rather than God-given talent, insists that the easier part of being the world's topped ranked player is getting there. "The really hard part is regaining that position," he says, "fighting and working hard enough to get back when the great moment has passed. You have to push yourself to the limits. You have to hit a million golf balls."

McIlroy, whose natural brilliance is in much less doubt than his resilience in the face of inevitable setbacks, has thus far shown a marked indifference to the hard-won wisdom of a Faldo. Perhaps he reckons that innate ability of his own order will always be a renewable feast.

The Tiger, demonstrably knows better, and even in the worst of his times we were never likely to see him walking prematurely from the course. Indeed, he may well be defining, admittedly and perhaps inevitably, in stops and starts, what it is that truly separates the great champions from the rest.

It is a refusal to accept that there isn't a way to recreate at least some of the best of your past. A supreme example of this came when he won the last of his majors, the US Open in 2008. He won it virtually on one leg and in excruciating pain and then he presented himself to a surgeon.

At the start of this year he returned to Torrey Pines, the cliff-side Californian course which is overlooked by one of America's leading army veteran hospitals, and won his seventh US tour title on the same course. Today he is attempting to go one better at Bay Hill - and share the record with the old warrior Sam Snead, who achieved the mark in the Greater Greensboro Open.

What is not in doubt is that the Tiger, like one of those old soldiers looking down on Torrey Pines, has reason to believe that the worst of his rehabilitation might well be just about over.

 

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