- The Washington Times - Monday, May 21, 2012

The Tiger Woods narrative seems like a story we’ve all heard before. Prodigy rises to superstardom. Superstar encounters obstacles. Humbled superstar embarks on path to redemption.

After winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational on March 25 - Woods’ first win in 2 1/2 years and 27 tour events since a 2009 sex scandal - you could almost feel the story reach its familiar turning point. But two “T40” finishes and one missed cut later, Woods addressed the media Monday at Congressional Country Club with the same lingering question, the same elephant in the room.

Is Tiger finally back?

“I think that I’m headed in the right direction,” he said. “You have to understand, even when I’ve had some really good years - whether it was in the early 2000s or mid-2000s - even if I was winning golf tournaments, I still felt I could improve, I could get better each and every day. I never looked at it as like ‘Wow, that’s my peak. I can’t get any better.’ If that’s the case, I would’ve walked.”

Woods hosted media and fans at Congressional to preview the 2012 AT&T National, which will tee off June 26. He participated in a chipping contest with 10 fans (ultimately winning, by the way) and talked about the Tiger Woods Foundation, which co-sponsors the tournament, and the progress of its Earl Woods Scholarship Program.

However, concerns about Woods’ recent performance continually arose. The man who has won more majors than any golfer not named Jack Nicklaus finds himself in arguably the worst three-tournament stretch of his professional career. After finishing 5 over at the Masters, Woods missed the cut for only the eighth time in his career at Quail Hollow and finished tied for 40th at TPC Sawgrass. He has shot below par only twice since winning at Bay Hill on March 25.

Unfazed, Woods tried to put his slump in perspective.

“I remember I had a pretty good year in 2000, and I didn’t win for a couple months and the word ‘slump’ came about,” he said. “And that’s basically the same thing that’s happened here. I just played three events and, you know, I just won a tournament three tournaments ago.”

Yet that win was Woods’ first in 923 days, a drought too long and deep to be a mere slump. Between family trouble off the golf course and myriad injuries on it, fans have begun to question whether Woods’ win was a return to the norm or an aberration amid long-term struggles still to come.

Woods, of course, would argue the former. He said that he is continuing to adjust his game physically and psychologically, and taking incremental steps to improve his game one swing at a time. Swing coach Sean Foley’s changes are beginning to feel less mechanical and more second nature, and Woods is confident that he will continue to improve with more reps. Psychologically, he said that despite his poor results of late, he has grown more patient.

“I have two kids,” Woods said with a smile. “As we all know, it makes you more patient, that’s for sure.”

It’s this patience that Woods was forced to exercise this time last year, when his peers were preparing for the U.S. Open at Congressional and he was resting an injured knee and Achilles’ tendon. He watched as Rory McIlroy dominated the field at one of Woods’ favorite tournaments on one of his favorite courses.

“It’s tough because I missed out on a golf course that I know, and that I’ve won on, and that I like,” he said. “Those factors made it very difficult to sit back and watch.”

There will be no sitting and watching this time around, and Woods is excited to return to Congressional for the first time since the 2009 AT&T National, when he shot 4 over and tied for 46th. The results of the past few tournaments are behind him, and Woods believes that another victory could be right around the corner.

“I fight, and I grind it out, and that’s something that I am proud of. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to equate that into W’s, because it’s just one shot here or there,” he said. “I’m close, and I just have to keep going.”

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