- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
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ATLANTA -- "Playing seven out of nine weeks with an additional trip to Ireland for Ryder Cup practice was taxing both mentally and physically and I feel like I need another week away from competitive golf."
Such were the words of Tiger Woods, the world's top-ranked golfer, its most recognizable athlete, the face of a generation. On the surface, it appears Woods is playing hooky yet again, simply extending his already protracted vacation for the sake of spurning the PGA Tour at its season-ending Tour Championship.
Instead, it's so much more. It's a time for internal reflection, for rest and relaxation during a season that has seen so little of either. A time to appraise the climactic highs and mournful lows of the most twisting, turning, tumultuous six-month period of his 30 years.
He stormed off the final green at Winged Foot Golf Club, fire heaving from his mouth, smoke steaming from his ears. It was official: For the first time in his 10-year professional career, Tiger had missed the cut at a major championship -- and he was fuming. Forget the fact that his father Earl, a man he called his "best friend," had passed away only six weeks earlier. This was about golf and failing to reach the weekend at a U.S. Open was, for the world's top-ranked player, simply unacceptable.
"When you don't execute, you're not going to be happy either way," Woods said during a terse postround interview. "What's transpired off the golf course, I don't know if it gives you a different type of perspective. I don't care if you had what transpired in my life of recent or not, but poor execution is never going to feel very good."
He hardly needed to annunciate these sentiments; they were written all over his face. Woods looked withered, beaten down after the round, during which he shot a second consecutive score of 6-over-par 76, his brow furrowed in disgust, that world-famous megawatt smile locked away far below the surface of his outer facade. Still, he handled the inquiries with his usual aplomb, deftly deflecting questions with the casual ease of a retiree swatting flies on the front porch, questions like: Were you thinking about your father on the course? Did you come back too soon? Not soon enough?
These were substantial propositions, each of them offering evidence to support its intended theory. Of course, no reporter dared ask the one question that was on everyone's mind, the one Tiger himself might have been pondering at that very minute: Will you ever be the same player again?
The intonation would have been only one part physical, 10 parts mental. Yes, this is a man who won 10 career major titles before the age of 30, reliant on rugged musculature that invoked one of the PGA Tour's top swing speeds and a buttery-smooth putting stroke that time and again left fellow competitors vanquished and forgotten. But professional golf is as much a cerebral pursuit as it is corporeal. Tiger's hard-as-nails interior had been cracked, left delicate and fragile without his father's guiding hand nearby. He had relied on Earl to teach him the game since, well, forever. As a 6-month-old, the younger Woods would sit quietly in his high chair, intently watching the elder Woods swat golf balls into a net in the garage of their California home. Three years later, he appeared alongside Bob Hope -- and his father, of course -- as a child prodigy golfer on "The Mike Douglas Show." For countless practice sessions and lessons, amateur events and professional tournaments, whatever the occasion, Earl Woods was always right there with Tiger, either physically or just a phone call away. Until the 2006 U.S. Open.
Fast-forward four months and many victories later. The pain of losing his father has hardly subsided, but it has been joined by a newly found motivation to conquer any golfer, any course, any record that stands in his way. Woods has triumphed in six consecutive PGA Tour-sanctioned events. In order -- and hold the applause, please -- they are the British Open, Buick Open, PGA Championship, Bridgestone Invitational, Deutsche Bank Championship and American Express Championship, a litany of distinguished tournaments featuring the world's most elite players, none of whom could beat Woods during any of these given weeks.
So, how did he do it? How did Tiger Woods transform from a man so burdened by personal loss that he couldn't make a cut at the U.S. Open to one so consumed by winning that it is now difficult to even recall those two days at Winged Foot?
Perhaps the answers can be found in Woods' elocution following the latest of those recent half-dozen victories.
"If you take into account what happened off the golf course, it's my worst year," he said after winning the AmEx in England on Oct. 1. "I mean, people asked me, 'How do you consider this year?' I consider it as a loss. In the grand scheme of things, golf, it doesn't even compare to losing a parent."
You'll recall the outpouring of emotion Tiger released following his victory at the British Open, his first of the current streak and first without Earl just a congratulatory hug or phone call away. A stoic, stone-faced Woods methodically dissected the Royal Liverpool course with surgeon-like precision for four days, never once giving indication that his thoughts were centered on anything other than the next shot. Upon tapping in the final putt on the final hole that overcast Sunday afternoon, the new champion clenched caddie Steve Williams with all his might, his body convulsing from equal feelings of spirituality and detachment, his eyes bloodshot from tears that had been held back far too long.
"I'm kind of the one who bottles things up a little bit and moves on, tries to deal with things in my own way," Woods later said. "But at that moment, it just came pouring out and of all the things that my father has meant to me and the game of golf, and I just wish he could have seen it one more time."
At the time, it appeared staking claim to the Claret Jug was an isolated incident, one brief shining moment in an otherwise dreary period in Tiger's life. How were we to know that this victory would serve as a launching pad, propelling the world's top player to even loftier heights?
And yet, that's exactly what happened. The Open victory was followed two weeks later by Woods' second career Buick Open title, during which he shot four identical rounds of 66. Then came the PGA Championship, a Tiger coronation from the beginning, his 12th career professional major championship, leaving him in sole possession of second place all time, trailing only Jack Nicklaus. Woods shredded the field in Akron, and chased it with a triumph at his own Deutsche Bank Championship just outside of Boston. And the anguish of the United States' loss in the Ryder Cup was quickly extinguished by an 8-stroke win at the AmEx.
Now we are left to examine, analyze and watch in wonder a player who has competed in 15 PGA Tour events this season and won more than half of them. His current torrid streak has captured the attention of mainstream media, as well. On a recent edition of "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno, the program's host asked Woods if it was hard to win six consecutive events. "Hard?" Tiger quipped in mock exasperation. "Well, I used to have hair."
His rapidly receding hairline notwithstanding, Woods remains the gold standard for whom all others are judged. The streak of six straight wins is five shy of the PGA Tour's all-time record, held by recently deceased Byron Nelson, but ask Tiger and he'll offer a contrary diagnosis to the official tally. Having lost in the European Tour-sponsored HSBC World Match Play Championship and the Ryder Cup team competition before his AmEx victory, Woods considers the current streak to be one. It's yet another example of how he holds himself to a higher standard than anyone else holds him to. Or maybe it's our own fault. We should expect more of him by now.
By any measure, it has been an exacting year for Woods -- one of his most successful and satisfying seasons on the course, certainly the most trying and emotional off it. Throughout the arduous journey from that inauspicious day at the U.S. Open until now, Tiger says he thinks of Earl every day, recalling everything from his father's simple putting tips to resolute life lessons. The son has learned well. Armed with the memory of his father, Tiger Woods' comeback will not continue at this week's Tour Championship, but his resurgence has been thoroughly and completely realized.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
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