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Sunday, March 10, 2013
Updated: March 11, 7:52 PM ET
Burning questions surrounding Tiger

By Farrell Evans
ESPN.com

By the end of 2013, Tiger Woods could break Sam Snead's record of 82 PGA wins and tie Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 career majors.

It's mathematically possible, but highly unlikely.

If Tiger pulls off this feat, it would be the greatest story ever told in sports history -- maybe the greatest story told about anything.

With Tiger, it's easy to consider the ridiculous and surreal. Consider the 76 wins and the 14 majors. Consider the way he won the 2008 U.S. Open. Consider the three swing coaches, the swing changes and injuries. Consider the expectations that many of us have of him to win every time he plays.

Tiger will play once more at Bay Hill (March 21-24) before he makes that trip down Magnolia Lane for what he hopes will be his fifth green jacket, and his first major win since the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in 2008.

The win Sunday at Doral in the WGC-Cadillac Championship marked his fifth victory in his last 18 stroke-play events.

"I'm just trying to get better," Woods said on Sunday. "It's very simple. I feel like my game's becoming more efficient, and it's more consistent day in and day out, and I'm very pleased with the progress I've made with [swing coach] Sean [Foley]."

With Rory McIlroy struggling amid the pressure of being No. 1 in the world, Tiger is poised to regain his throne as the undisputed best in the game. The 37-year-old, three-time U.S. Amateur champion can likely overtake McIlroy with a win at Bay Hill.

But he's not there yet.

So as we consider Tiger's resurgence, let's weigh five events or shifts that have occurred around him since he was last No. 1 in the world.

Anchoring controversy

When Tiger was last No. 1 in the world in October 2010, before McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald took turns holding the title, no player had won a major championship with an anchored stroke on a belly putter. Since then, Keegan Bradley, Ernie Els and Webb Simpson have all taken majors with the controversial method.

After the PGA Tour said it opposed the proposed ban on anchoring, the European Tour said last week it would back the R&A and USGA on the ban, which is slated to begin in 2016.

Tiger has been unrelenting in his favor of the ban.

"I still think the [putter] should be swung, it shouldn't be anchored, and that hasn't changed at all," he said in late February.

Could there be a public outcry for a ban on the anchoring method if Tiger is defeated in a major over the next few years by a wielder of the anchored stroke?

It might look bad for the sport to see its biggest draw stymied in his bid for Jack Nicklaus' majors record by a putting method mired in controversy.

If the best and most popular player in the world is against anchoring, it's going to be hard for the PGA Tour to launch a vigorous campaign for its survival.

Rory retreats?

Over the last three years, McIlroy has emerged as a serious threat to Tiger's dominance. No one is sensibly comparing the young Northern Irishman's career trajectory to Tiger's on the basis of two 8-stroke wins in majors.

It's not a LeBron-versus-Jordan type controversy. But it's the closest thing golf has to a rivalry.

What form will this rivalry take with Tiger eyeing a return to the top of the heap?

Coming into 2013, particularly after McIlroy dominated at the PGA Championship in August at Kiawah Island, S.C., it appeared that Tiger was being pushed out of the front seat. The kid was simply better, many of us thought. He had the charisma and the game, or at least the promise of it.

But now that McIlroy is having difficulty with the pressure of these lofty expectations, will he descend into the rank-and-file elite of the tour? Or will he play well enough to stay with Tiger and continue challenging him consistently at big tournaments?

Job security

Tiger and Foley appear to being doing some great work together. Tiger loves his new golf swing and believes he can do more than ever with his game as a result of their collaboration.

Yet Foley has never really worked with Tiger for an extended period when he was at the top of the sport and expected to win every week. (Westwood took over No. 1 from Woods in late October 2010.)

Tiger's game was on a downward spiral by the time Foley began working with him at the 2010 PGA Championship.

Can their relationship withstand the pressure cooker that comes with the scrutiny and fame that goes with this kind of arrangement?

Butch Harmon and Hank Haney had very successful runs as Tiger's swing coach, but neither had the most amicable exits from Team Woods.

Even as Foley has tried to mostly shun the spotlight, it's been impossible for him to stay untangled from the 24/7 Tiger news cycle. Imagine being the crew chief on the fastest team in NASCAR or the trainer for a potential Triple Crown winner.

That's the kind of burden that Foley carries. And it will only get more intense as Woods fights his way back to the top.

The bag man

No one has made a bigger deal recently out of caddies and swing gurus than Woods. Muhammad Ali had Angelo Dundee and Bundini Brown. Tiger has Foley and Joe LaCava, his caddie since September 2011.

LaCava, best-known until recently for his work with Fred Couples for 20 years, is Tiger's third full-time caddie. LaCava and Steve Williams are like night and day.

LaCava is an easygoing guy from a small town in Connecticut who works hard. He is polite to everyone and unfazed by the hoopla surrounding his boss.

Most importantly, LaCava has gained the trust of Tiger and doesn't shy away from sharing his perspective on any given situation on the golf course.

If Tiger is to break Nicklaus' record, LaCava is likely to be the man on his bag. In this third leg of Tiger's career, he cannot afford to fire any more caddies. It's a distraction he would rather not have to deal with.

How important will LaCava be to Tiger's success? Will he be a calming presence to help his often-emotional boss get through some difficult patches late on Sunday afternoons with a major championship on the line?

Tiger won all but one of his 14 majors with Williams. After their very public breakup in 2011, Tiger probably wants to prove that he can win without the sometimes gruff New Zealander. But you don't quickly forget a man who has been a major part of much of your success.

Fear factor

Is that aura of intimidation that Tiger carried around with him during those glory years gone for good or will it make a return?

Did his slump and the embarrassing revelations about his personal life permanently free players of this fear factor?

No, the aura is still there. No one plays with Tiger without feeling some of the weight of his influence on the game. All the players know his highlight reel. But they have seen him down and know his vulnerabilities.

And now many of them do his gym workouts and follow his healthy eating habits. The equipment has narrowed the gap between the most talented players and the 50th-ranked player in the world. You can be like Tiger if you follow his rules and get a little help from the equipment manufacturers.

The landscape of pro golf changes a little every year. That's why it's going to be harder than ever for Tiger to stay on top once he makes it back.