Out of the Rough: When is 'back' really 'back'?

It's impossible to adequately judge whether or not Sunday's win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational means Tiger Woods is really "back."

Comebacks, in sports especially, are fluid in their nature. Woods' win Sunday was certainly a positive. There's no other way to construe it, but saying he's back to his old ways is a tad premature.

For the record, Woods doesn't even believe this signifies a comeback. He doesn't believe the Arnold Palmer was his first win since 2009. Woods thinks that happened at the Chevron World Challenge last winter.

"I got official world ranking points, didn't I," asked Woods when a reporter challenged Woods that his own charitable event wasn't official.

Woods joked with the reporter after that exchange. "You can't win this one, can you?" he said.

It's not official because it's not official. If it was official, it would be an official PGA tournament. Simplest explanation you'll find.

Aside from Wood's incorrectly inflating the value of his 18-player event, there are a few logical, correct reasons to question if Sunday's win was the return to dominance.

You won't hear anything naive come out like, "anyone can win on the PGA Tour." That's foolish, just ask guys like Briny Baird, who've toiled out on the big stage for years without the jubilation of victory.

But remember, David Duval, whose game sank so far so quickly it might as well have had an anvil and a piano tied to it before chucking it in the lake, nearly won the U.S. Open in 2009.

And Woods won at Bay Hill six times before the SUV that derailed his career backed into that neighbor's tree three Thanksgivings ago. This was a perfect venue for a comeback, or whatever you might want to call it.

There's always the question of his health. He's a few weeks removed from an Achilles injury that was so severe he had to withdraw in the final round of a World Golf Championships event.

But it wasn't quite severe enough to stop him from playing the Tavistock Cup, a two-day joke between four exclusive golf clubs, just a few days later.

It's impossible to predict injuries, but it's fair to say Woods is officially injury-prone. He's said countless times that the biggest challenge he's faced in recent years is the ability to practice. If Woods is healthy, he's going to work.

Assuming he's reasonably healthy, Woods' win on Sunday signified something very large.

The biggest weapon at Woods' disposal when he was destroying guys like a club- wielding cyborg was the mental grip he had over everyone.

When Woods held the lead, or was even in contention, every guy with spikes on knew Woods was going to stay strong. He wasn't going to make mistakes, you had to catch him, you had to gamble, then you made mistakes.

That faded when Woods was revealed to be a flawed human being.

Graeme McDowell beat him down the stretch at the 2010 Chevron and Robert Rock did the same this year in Abu Dhabi.

The only way to get that aura of intimidation back is to win, and to do so in a "take your heart, then step on it and send you back to your mama crying" kind of way.

Sunday's performance was close to that.

Woods won by five strokes over McDowell on a windy course that played difficulty, especially in the final round.

"He was just going to be hard to get close to today," McDowell said. "Every time I got close to him, I made a mistake, like nine, for example. I just tried to be too aggressive. I was never really close enough to him. I was always pushing. I was always trying."

That's what makes you believe Woods may truly be back.

His closest competitor encapsulated what made Woods great in the early part of this century. That played out perfectly on Sunday.

Perhaps the most pertinent question to ask yourself when wondering about Woods is this, would you consider him the favorite next week at Augusta?

From here, the answer is yes, but alongside Rory McIlroy.

Is he the favorite every time he tees it up, like he used to be?

No, Woods isn't there yet.

But he's said for years he was close.

"It's a process," was a line Woods was particularly fond of uttering over and over again.

Some didn't believe him. Now we should.

"I just felt that I've been making steps in the right direction. It just had not shown up for all four days yet," Woods said after his win.

It did this week and will again ... just not at the 2000 Tiger level.


- A few weeks back, I felt there were signs of change in Woods. He was signing autographs and this week was also more steps forward in the personal development side. This week was the same. When the woman yelled during his backswing on the 15th hole Saturday, Woods nearly hit his drive into a pool. He made double-bogey, but it seemed like his renewed Buddhist teachings were working. He was calm about it. On Sunday, Woods referred to his emotions after the win as "pure joy." It's interesting to see Woods be less cavalier about victories.

- Palmer's high blood pressure hospital scare definitely soured some of the good vibes from the weekend. He's going to be fine.

- Peter Jacobsen said on "Morning Drive" Thursday that he believed all players should be required to play the Arnold Palmer Invitational because of what Palmer meant to the game. Lovely idea, but if you have to play Palmer's, why not Jack Nicklaus' event? Or Byron Nelson's? Or Tiger's? Independent contractors should work independently.

- What a week, though, with Woods winning, Yani Tseng winning and Fred Couples winning on the Champions Tour. Never remember a week in which the best on each tour won at the same time.

- I am totally against giving Ernie Els an exemption into The Masters. He's had every opportunity to qualify and wasn't able to do it. You can't let the fact that he has been close the last two weeks, coupled with the fact that he's the most decent human being in the sport, cloud the fact that there are requirements for admission into the tournament, and he didn't meet them. Ryo Ishikawa got an exemption for political reasons. They want good television numbers in Japan. May not be fair, but it's reality.

- My pick for the Kraft Nabisco Championship is Tseng. It's interesting to see where she fits in the Annika/Lorena greatness debate. I smell a column coming.

- Movie moment - We watched "Young Adult" Sunday night and it was good. However, in the battle of the tubby, comic-actor turned serious, the Oscar nomination should've gone to Patton Oswalt in "Young Adult" over Jonah Hill in "Moneyball." Much better performance.

- TV moment - New addition, but you should give "Life's Too Short" a try. It's on HBO and comes from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. It's about dwarf actor Warwick Davis (remember Willow?) and it's a mock-umentary like "The Office." In the pilot, there's an astonishingly funny scene with Liam Neeson. It may not be for people with a conservative sense of humor, but check it out if "offensive," but smart, comedy is your thing.