Tiger rebuilding project just beginning

2/22/2010 - Golf Tiger Woods

The opinions continue to pour in and the range of reaction is stunning.

To put it in golf terms, Tiger Woods' performance Friday has been hailed as an effort worthy of a major championship winner and as one worthy of a weekend duffer -- with every level in between covered, as well.

The pundits, columnists, public relations experts, media consultants, entertainment hosts, television analysts and anyone else who weighed in had no shortage of analysis.

And the debate will not subside as Woods retreats to rehab and we await his emergence again. It could be weeks or months or even into next year. Nobody, perhaps not even Tiger, is sure.

Which leads to serious questions about his ability to return to his dominating, iconic ways.

Colin Montgomerie, the European Ryder Cup captain who once famously remarked years ago at a tournament that a Woods victory was all but assured -- after the first round -- was one of the first to suggest that Woods' aura of invincibility would be gone.

But much of that aura had to do with Woods' opponents' own insecurities. Sure, Woods has been an intimidating presence, but in running up his impressive record of 14 majors championships and 71 PGA Tour victories over the years, he still showed periods of vulnerability.

Woods misses fairways, misses putts, misses cuts. Perhaps less than others, but he has never been the perfect golfer, just better at managing his imperfections.

That is the course he must now follow in repairing his personal life and image, all of which will help him return to glory, assuming his game returns, as well.

Woods said several things during his Friday discourse that suggest he understands how deeply he hurt his persona.

In trying to repair it, he referenced his own Tiger Woods Foundation and said that the work done for young people "is more important than ever."

He said that "parents used to point to me as a role model for their kids. I owe all those families a special apology. I want to say to them that I am truly sorry."

He asked for people to "one day believe in me" again.

And he said when he returns to golf, "I need to make my behavior more respectful of the game."

If Woods is able to follow through and show that he means what he said, there will be plenty who flock to him again.

And there is evidence to suggest that his fans will be his fans, regardless of his personal transgressions. Many of them are simply enthralled with his abilities between the ropes, not his foibles outside.

A SportsNation poll -- admittedly not scientific -- conducted Friday after his statement showed that 50 percent of the people polled still "like" Woods, with 25 percent undecided and 25 percent who don't like him.

That suggests there is still room for improvement. So what happens when Tiger starts winning again?

"The vast number of people just want their Tiger Woods back," CBS analyst David Feherty said.

When Woods plays again, there is no reason to believe his game will suffer. He is just 34 and plays a sport in which players compete and win well into their 40s.

And while he has missed two major championships (due to injury) since winning the 2008 U.S. Open and could miss at least one more (the Masters in April), he really has not lost any ground to Jack Nicklaus in his quest to match the Golden Bear's record of 18 major titles. Nicklaus took nearly three years to win his 15th major title, a pace that Woods remains well within reach of beating.

Still, Tiger is not even halfway to the longest layoff of his career, which spanned some eight months after his 2008 knee surgery. All he did after that was come back last year and win six times on the PGA Tour while adding an overseas victory. Over the past few seasons, Woods has played some of the most consistently compelling golf of his career.

Whenever Woods does come back, he won't have the injury to overcome (maybe the layoff even helps his surgically repaired knee). And it is difficult to envision his skills leaving him.

Look at other sports stars as examples.

Kobe Bryant and Alex Rodriguez have overcome serious allegations about their character and admitted to serious wrongdoing. Bryant was charged with rape -- the case was settled out of court. Rodriguez admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs after a leaked positive drug test, but last season helped the Yankees win the World Series.

Woods already appears to have put any comparisons to Roger Clemens aside. Clemens, a seven-time Cy Young award winner, has been disgraced because of his link to steroids and his refusal to openly discuss the issue.

Friday's effort by Tiger, however much it is analyzed, sought to get him back on track. Whether you believe it to be brilliant or scripted, heartfelt or arrogant -- among the many words used to describe the statement -- Woods did take ownership of the situation by saying "I recognize I have brought this on myself."

Woods is one of the few athletes who can make a huge difference -- through his charitable efforts with his foundation, through his acknowledged role model status to kids, through his professional actions on the course, which he admitted needs improvement.

Making strides in those areas will help.

But the way he'll really bring them back is by winning. And while none of the tawdry stuff that has come to light can ever be forgotten, it can certainly be put in the background, part of his story of redemption.

If Woods follows up on his pledge to do better by his fans and breaks Nicklaus' record in the process, he can again be that incredible icon that seemed so invincible.

It will take a good while for him to get back to that point, but are you betting against him?

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.