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Ten years after his last great moment, Tiger Woods is just happy to be here

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — The effects of The Lost Decade weren’t visible when Tiger Woods sat down for his pre-U.S. Open news conference at Shinnecock Hills Tuesday. He’s in great shape. His face is smooth and youthful for age 42. The omnipresent “TW” hat concealed his fading hairline.

But the effects are there, and they run deep. The decade since Woods’ last major championship win, when he elevated his already exalted legend into the stratosphere by playing 91 epic holes on a broken leg at Torrey Pines, is a saga of sustained loss.

He lost his health, both physical and emotional. He lost his marriage. He lost his sterling reputation. He lost his golf game. He lost his longtime caddy. He lost his swing coach. He lost his aura.

When Woods willed his injured body through four rounds plus a 19-hole playoff, his continued dominance of the sport was a foregone conclusion. He’d won 14 majors and was on an inexorable march to shattering Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18. Yes, he would need time off to heal the fractured leg, but that was viewed as nothing more than a temporary pause.

Instead, The Lost Decade ensued. Bypassing Nicklaus went from an inevitability to an impossibility.

“I have been there on a number of occasions to win a major championship since the ’08 U.S. Open, and I haven’t done it,” Woods said Tuesday. “And, no, I don’t like that feeling. I’ve certainly had a nice run where I’ve won a few. Unfortunately, over the last 10 years, I haven’t.”

The last truly great moment of Tiger Woods career came 10 years ago, when he birdied 18 to send the 2008 U.S. Open to a playoff. (Getty)

Woods finished second to Y.E. Yang in the ’09 PGA Championship, then had top-five finishes three times at The Masters (2010, ’11 and ’13), once at the U.S. Open (’10) and once at the British Open (’12). But by the expectations he set for himself, Torrey Pines 2008 was the last truly great golf moment Tiger Woods has had.

On June 15, 2008, Woods made what might have been the most clutch putt of his career, a 15-footer for a tournament-tying birdie on the final hole that ruined the major-championship swan song of Rocco Mediate – at the time a 45-year-old with a bad back and a No. 158 world ranking.

Today that almost describes Woods himself – a 42-year-old with a surgically repaired back and a No. 80 world ranking. But even by those humbling standards, 2018 has at least been a climb up from rock bottom.

The last time Woods played in a U.S. Open, he stumbled around Chambers Bay in 2015 and missed the cut. Then he missed cuts at the British Open and PGA later that summer – and that was the last we saw of him in majors until this year. He underwent two spinal surgeries in the fall of ’15 and didn’t play a competitive round of golf in all of ’16. He played one tournament in 2017 and then had a spinal fusion surgery in April last year.

That was followed by a second public humiliation. The first was in 2010, when marriage infidelities became an international scandal. The second came on Memorial Day weekend last year, when Woods was found asleep in his car at 3 a.m. in a traffic lane with the motor running. He was charged with driving under the influence.

After stating that he was taking prescription drugs related to the spinal fusion, Woods eventually pled guilty to reckless driving. He was asked Tuesday, in a respectful and professional manner, how his life has changed since police videotape of that incident surfaced.

“It’s gotten better,” Woods said, smiling but terse.

After the news conference, Woods’ longtime agent, Mark Steinberg, had some angry words for Michael Bamberger of Golf Magazine, the media member who asked the question. It was an example of one thing Woods still has after The Lost Decade: willing enablers who vigorously seek to shield the man from any blowback caused by his own missteps.

This year, at least, the Tiger Woods conversation has returned to golf – and to his increasingly competent performance. He’s not All The Way Back, and never will be. But he’s been Far Enough Back to make the cut at the Masters and finish tied for 32nd, to finished tied for 11th at The Players Championship, tied for fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and tied for second at the Valspar Championship.

“I’ve had my opportunities [to win],” Woods said. “Also, I’m very thankful to have had those opportunities. I didn’t know if I was going to have them again.

Tiger Woods tees off the fourth hole during a practice round for the U.S. Open Golf Championship, Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in Southampton, N.Y. (AP)

“I had no expectation of getting this far [a year ago at this time]. A lot of this is pure bonus because of where I was. To be able to have this opportunity to play USGA events, to play against these guys, best players in the world, it’s just a great feeling and one that I don’t take for granted.”

The appreciation is mutual. How big an impact has the return of Tiger had on this tournament already? According to TicketIQ.com, the average ticket price of $265 is up 60 percent over last year at Erin Hills and 34 percent over 2016 at Oakmont – Opens Woods missed.

His appeal is enduring, but the state of Woods’ rebuilt game is similar to a leaky roof – fix one leak, and another springs open. Sometimes he has driven the ball erratically. Other times he has putted poorly. Pretty much what you’d expect from a guy in his 40s who spent almost the entire previous two years on the shelf.

“You’ve seen the tournaments I’ve played in this year,” Woods said. “There’s always something. Hopefully, this is one of those weeks where I put it all together and even it out, and we’ll see what happens.”

If Tiger Woods puts it all together, can he turn back the clock to 2008? Can the legend who flailed through The Lost Decade once again be found?

A reappearance of vintage Tiger in a major would be one of the greatest stories in golf history. He looks the part. Now we’ll see whether he can play the part.

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