Wednesday April 6th, 2011

Yes, I know Tiger Woods has been playing lousy golf. His stroke average has been over 71 for more than a year. He hasn't scored this poorly since his swing was hampered by his diapers.

Still, I will believe Tiger Woods is finished when he lays up on par threes and wears Sansabelt slacks. I think he has another run of greatness in him. I don't know when it will start -- I'm a sportswriter, not a fortune-teller. But I think it's coming.

I'll admit this is partly habit. I am so accustomed to seeing Tiger contend that his struggles seem like an optical illusion. But I have that habit for a good reason. There has never been anything like this guy. Ever.

Jack Nicklaus, of course, has a similar resume. But Nicklaus had a different approach to the game. Nicklaus never wanted to make major swing changes. He would stop playing every autumn so he could get rid of his bad habits. Then he would start fresh the next year, to repeat what he had done so well in the past.

Tiger is completely different. After he destroyed the field at the 1997 Masters, winning by 12 shots, he famously decided to find a new way to do it. He watched tape of his swing and decided he needed to get better. He failed to win the next 10 majors, and people openly wondered if he was as good as his hype. Then Tiger won seven of the next 11 majors.

And then what did he do? He changed his swing again. He dumped his teacher, Butch Harmon, for Hank Haney and went on another tear. Then he dumped Haney for Sean Foley.

Would I have done that? Hell no. If I ever won the Masters by 12 shots I would never change my socks, let alone my swing. But I'm not Tiger Woods.

The point here is that Tiger's recent swoon is not his first. He is undergoing a swing change, and every time he does that, it takes a while to kick in. So this should not surprise us.

Now, of all Tiger's swoons, this is by far the swoon-iest. In the past, he'd finish third and people would ask what was wrong. Now they're asking if he meant to hit his tee shot into a Wendy's. But let's face it: In the middle of this swing change, his personal life burst into flames. Of course that had to affect his golf game.

I have no earthly idea if the divorced Tiger is a changed man or merely an unchained man. For all I know, he goes out to dinner every night and orders the waitress. But I'm going to go out on a limb here and say Tiger Woods still wants to win golf tournaments. So I assume he has found a way to give golf the attention it needs.

Will he routinely boom his drives past everybody else, like he did 12 years ago? No. The game has changed. Does he have to compensate for his surgically repaired knee? Absolutely.

Will that keep him from winning in the long term? I don't think so. One of the fun things about golf is that fat guys can smoke cigars and win golf tournaments. Tiger still keeps himself in great shape, and he should be able to find a swing to suit his aging body.

Tiger is 35. PLENTY of golfers have won majors after turning 35. Sure, Arnold Palmer stopped winning majors at around that age. But Ben Hogan won eight after turning 35. The alltime greats usually compete for majors long after their physical prime. Nicklaus won the Masters at 46 and contended at 58. Tom Watson made a playoff at the British Open when he was 59. Gary Player won the Masters at 43. At 53, Greg Norman held the third-round lead at the British, long after he had supposedly given up golf to focus on his marriages and divorces.

In fact, of the last 16 Masters champions, seven were age 35 or older, and four were named Tiger Woods. If guys like Mark O'Meara and Angel Cabrera could win majors in their 40s, why can't Woods?

And don't tell me golfers only have one peak. Tiger has already had three, and any one of them would lead the obituary of almost any golfer who ever lived.

If you're going to say that Tiger is old, please do me one favor, OK? Don't say Phil Mickelson is the heavy favorite to win this week. You can't have it both ways. Mickelson is 40. He has won three majors since he was Tiger's age, and most people figure he will win at least one more. Tiger needs four to tie Nicklaus.

If you have seen Woods play golf in the last year, it was easy to think, "Man, he has a LONG way to go." And he did. But nobody has ever gone farther or faster in the world of golf than Tiger Woods. I think he can, and will, be great again.

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