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Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Updated: July 19, 10:21 PM ET
Time for Tiger The Great to return

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

HOYLAKE, England -- Every golf fan has a sadistic taste for schadenfreude. We delight in the double bogeys of others -- especially when those others are the private-jet owners on the PGA Tour.

But we learned the limits of schadenfreude last month, when Tiger Woods missed the cut in the U.S. Open. That was excessive. That misery boomeranged back at us.

Golf is diminished without Woods in the fray. Or above it.

Tiger Woods
Woods trails Nicklaus by eight major victories entering this week's British Open.

While watching the pros rifle practice-round drives down Royal Liverpool fairways that have been baked into bowling lanes, it's impossible to envision a second consecutive major weekend without Woods. In fact, what this overheated British Open championship needs most is not a quenching rain or a classic squall off the nearby Irish Sea; it's a muscle-flexing, fist-pumping, field-stomping tour de force from Tiger.

Enough of Tiger The Vulnerable. It's high time for a return of Tiger The Great.

It's time for a reappearance of the perpetrator of golf miracles, exterminator of golf mortals and dominator of golf majors. Time for another viewing of the man who inspires awe, not the rusty scatter shot who inspired pity at Winged Foot. Time for a resumption of the only rivalry golf needs: not Tiger vs. Phil, but Tiger vs. Jack in the race for the most major championships. (Current score: Jack 18, Tiger 10.)

The world has no use for Woods missing major cuts. It's like having the Yankees go 70-92, or Duke in the NIT. Where's the fun in that?

If you love Tiger, you want him at the top of the leaderboard. If you hate Tiger, you still like having him around to resent and root against. Absence from the competition suits neither constituency.

When human lightning rods lose their conductivity, sport loses its spark.

By all appearances, Woods' missed U.S. Open cut -- his first in a major as a professional -- was only a temporary power outage. He hadn't played a competitive round since The Masters in April, and still was grieving the death of his father and guiding light, Earl.

Winged Foot was ready, willing and able to devour the unprepared, dismissing Woods at an unfathomable 12-over-par. Back home in Florida, he punished himself by watching every minute of the weekend play on TV.

"I just didn't get into the competitive flow fast enough," Woods said here Tuesday. "Taking that much time off and then coming back to -- well, as it is, the hardest U.S. Open venue we've ever played -- it made it really difficult. Subsequently, I didn't execute."

A strong bounce-back performance at the Western Open earlier this month should signal that Woods is rounding back into form. There are other signals as well.

He skipped what had become a customary pre-Open visit to Ireland to fish, instead arriving here early and playing practice rounds at Royal Liverpool starting on Sunday. And his famous focus was evident on the practice green Tuesday morning as he poured hundreds of 5-foot putts into the cup, scarcely even lifting his head from the task for a solid 45 minutes.

Then there's the pairings for this event, which should only serve to sharpen Woods' competitive instincts. Those madcap jokesters from the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews who administer the Open have paired him with Nick Faldo for the opening two rounds.

Two of the game's greats reportedly haven't spoken for nearly 18 months, since Faldo -- in his television analyst's role -- said at the 2005 Buick Invitational that Woods hit a "horrible" approach into the final green. Faldo then critiqued Tiger's swing in slow motion, which apparently did not sit well with TW Inc.

Faldo suggested this week to the British tabloid The Sun that the two "can kiss on both cheeks and then it's gone." Woods sounded uninterested in a makeup smooch. When asked what his reaction would be if Faldo struck up a conversation, he responded, "Surprised."

The two had a chance to achieve detente Tuesday, when they shared space on the putting green. Instead they scrupulously ignored each other.

So on the slim chance Tiger needed more motivation, the R&A provided it. Nevertheless, the British press seems edgy.

They were anxious in the interview room to gauge Tiger's preparedness to defend his Open championship. One persistent questioner asked Woods twice when he will have reached closure in the grieving process, as if it could be scheduled into his Day-Timer.

"I've come to terms with it, there's no doubt about that," Woods responded. "He's not here anymore. It's not like I can pick up the phone and call him and say, 'Pop, what do you think about my putting stroke?' Those days aren't here anymore."

Thankfully, Earl Woods was around to see his son at the apex of his offspring's powers, in the summer of 2000. I'd love to see a reappearance of that Tiger, the monster who ruled the game like no golfer ever has.

That Woods won the U.S. Open by a mythic 15 strokes, the British Open by 8 and the PGA in a thrilling duel with previously anonymous Bob May. That Woods elevated golf to art.

There was nothing boring about the one-sidedness of the Opens at Pebble Beach and St. Andrews in 2000. Not if you appreciate sheer genius.

I walked 65 of 72 holes at Pebble with Tiger, transfixed. As soon as Woods started putting red numbers on the scoreboard I joined the bandwagon, and there was no getting off. For a full four days, not another soul on the course mattered.

This was a new level of mastery, a stretching of widely assumed athletic limitations. It was hard to believe what you were seeing: Woods carving up a course that left everyone else bent, broken and over par. I can imagine the witnesses to Secretariat's Belmont or Roger Bannister's sub-four-minute mile felt something similar.

Woods might not be able to duplicate those feats at age 30, but neither has he forgotten what that summer felt like. When a reporter referenced his "18-under-par" record score at St. Andrews, Woods smiled.

"Wasn't it 19?" he asked with a twinkle in his eye, knowing full well that it was. "I got to 20 and bogeyed 17. … Give me a little credit."

Credit is due. And after his jarring absence from the weekend action at the U.S. Open, a return of Tiger The Great is overdue.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.