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To a Tee: Woods' form returns ahead of U.S. Open

The debate about whether or not Tiger Woods is "back" has been neverending, and trying to determine and answer requires a Rosetta stone, knowledge of abstract algebra and a little bit of luck.

It's the calliope of golf debates, and may never end until he wins his next major, or wins three in a row.

And that's fair, because players like Woods define their careers by great victories.

He earned a big one in March at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his first title since 2009. But Sunday's win at the Memorial was great for a number of reasons -- most of all because it was the greatest indicator yet that his form is returning and it makes him a genuine favorite to win the U.S. Open.

Most will remember that Memorial win for The Chip Shot -- his 50-footer for birdie at the 16th that got him a share of the lead. And it may be remembered because at the event hosted by Jack Nicklaus, Woods tied his idol with the 73rd victory of his career.

Those aspects of the victory shouldn't be lost. It was an incredible moment for Woods' career and an indelible shot.

With the ball about a dozen feet off the green, he faced a downhill lie and water beyond the hole. Woods needed the birdie and went for it, bouncing the ball off a ridge at the edge of the green to set up a soft roll into the cup.

Woods unwound an uppercut fist pump -- a once common sight on tour -- and later called it one of the hardest shots he's pulled off. Nicklaus also spoke in superlatives about the effort.

But that was just the best shot during an entire round full of good ones, and that's important to remember. While his win will be remembered for The Chip Shot, Woods was hitting the ball well all day.

His playing partner, Rickie Fowler, had the pleasure of watching him for all 18 holes and said Woods looked "very in control" of his golf ball Sunday.

That's the biggest substantial difference between Woods' two wins this season.

His Arnold Palmer title was big news, but his game wasn't altogether there. While he went into the Masters two weeks later as a favorite, he never put together a stellar round of golf and finished five-over par.

But by all indicators, Woods is hitting all types of shots well.

"I played well on that Sunday (at the Arnold Palmer Invitational), but I just didn't quite have the control I did today," Woods said Sunday. "That was different. I'm able to hit the ball, I think, compressing it higher than I did at Bay Hill. I was comfortable hitting it down, uncomfortable hitting it up. As I said at Augusta to you guys, I got exposed, wasn't able to get the ball up in the air comfortably, and it showed. Went to work on it for the next few weeks, and I finally got it. It came around here when I needed it."

The timing couldn't be better, with the U.S. Open taking place next week. Woods will carry his renewed form into San Francisco's Olympic Club as a favorite, especially because some of the other elite players in the game have struggled recently.

Rory McIlroy, the defending U.S. Open champion, has missed the cut at his last three events and hasn't gone under par since early May.

Phil Mickelson withdrew from the Memorial because of mental fatigue and poor hitting, while Masters winner Bubba Watson missed the cut. World No. 1 Luke Donald has won twice this year, but has historically struggled at the U.S. Open, and Lee Westwood is still in search of his first major title.

The door is wide open for Woods, who could earn his 15th major title at Olympic and move within three of Nicklaus' all-time mark.

It's by no means a certainty, but Woods should be a favorite, and not because Tiger is back -- but because his game is.