Bill Dwyre: Woods says only first place is acceptable

Los Angeles TimesJuly 15, 2014 

— Tiger Woods was introspective. He was friendly. He was defiant.

But was he ready?

It was Tuesday before a major, this week's British Open at Royal Liverpool. It was Tiger Talks Day. He meets the media and gives an update on perhaps the current longest-running soap opera in sports: Will Tiger Ever Be Tiger Again?

It has been going on since he last won a Grand Slam golf tournament, his 14th, at the Torrey Pines U.S. Open in 2008.

Hard to forget that one - Tiger limping around on a knee with no cartilage left and a small fracture in his leg; a gutty birdie on No. 18 to tie Rocco Mediate in regulation, and then another 19 holes of playoff limping on a Monday before winning.

He was 32. The future was so rosy that no fertilizer, sun or water was needed. Get the leg fixed, then go out and sail past Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors and don't look back.

Oops.

Six years have come and gone. So have many major tournament opportunities, some lost to injury and more to mediocre golf. It was usually just one bad round, or a few bad holes. But the old Tiger would never have tolerated what the new Tiger does now.

Nicklaus' standard once looked like one of those swimming world records that gets broken six times in a day at the Olympics. Now, it looks like Joe DiMaggio and 56 games.

Tiger is a speculation magnet. He is a rainy-day gift from heaven for sports talk radio. People who don't know a tee box from a shoe box want to know about Tiger. No other golfers. Just Tiger.

Is he finished? Is he poised for another run? Is he too old now? Does he want it too much? Is the rest of the field no longer intimidated by him? Are there just more good players now?

People who love Tiger want to know. People who don't love Tiger and say they don't want to know still want to know. They just deny it.

He is a Blake Griffin slam dunk, a 15-car Indy wreck. You can't stop watching.

Lots of that is his own fault. Besides being a great golfer, he did the celebrity thing by having a marital dust-up over other women and then crashed his car in his Florida driveway with an angry wife nearby.

That elevated (reduced?) him to supermarket tabloid stardom.

Now, we have little additional to go on, but we keep trying.

The update is that he is here, has played several practice rounds on a course where he won his third British Open and his 11th major in 2006. He says he is ready.

Media question: Given your limited preparation coming in here, what would be an acceptable finish for you this weekend?

Woods: First.

Follow-up question: Anything less than that would be unacceptable?

Woods: That's always the case, yeah.

He has played only five events worldwide this season, missing the cut in one and withdrawing in another. His total winnings for 2014 are $100,916, barely enough to pay the butler.

He is recovering from a serious back injury, a painful pinched nerve that forced him to have surgery March 31, meaning he missed the first two majors of the year, the Masters and U.S. Open. If you've seen him swing over the years, you can hardly be surprised that he hurt his back. Most golfers swing. Woods attacks.

"I do have to say," he said, "that there was a point in time - when my knee was bad, it was tough, but I could still chip and putt - that this particular injury with my back, I didn't want to do anything. I couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't do anything."

Now, 2 1/2 months after surgery to fix that, he is expecting to do something big, earth-shaking in the world of golf.

Win another major.

Nothing short of that will slow down the speculation, tone down the theories. He has changed swings more often than LeBron James changes teams. Network broadcaster Paul Azinger, a former PGA champion, created a recent stir when he pointed out that Tiger's constant talk about "getting better" is in direct contrast to Nicklaus, who never talked about that.

In his news conference, Woods not only broached the subject of being here to win, but went a little deeper.

"I think it gets harder every year," he said "The fields get deeper. More guys with a chance to win ... guys who are coming out here are bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic."

That led to the inevitable question about playing on into his 40s and 50s, if needed, to top Nicklaus' record.

"I'm really looking forward to that cart," he said, drawing a big laugh.

It all added up to another day of feeding the Tiger Woods speculation beast. It never seems to end.

Rory McIlroy, a two-time major champion himself, said he was happy Tiger was back because, "He always adds a lot of buzz."

Adam Scott, the world's current No. 1, said, "He'll be wanting to take his spot back at the top. There are a bunch of us who also want that spot. It's going to be some really good golf in the upcoming months ... see who wants it the most."

There is no denying that, for Tiger to be Tiger again, the time is right. Actually, perfect.

In 1978, with 14 major titles to his name, Jack Nicklaus teed it up for the British Open at the birthplace of golf, St. Andrews, and won title No. 15

He was 38 then, same age as one Eldrick Woods, the guy stuck on 14 majors.

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