LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — Has the growl returned? Has the passage of time allowed the golf game of Tiger Woods to snarl once again?
Those questions probably will be answered this weekend, on a scary golf course of narrow fairways and high rough that is shielded from the roguish weather of the Irish Sea by little more than a line of sand dunes.
It will be the 11th time the British Open has been played at Royal Lytham & St. Annes and the third time Woods has teed it up here in the Open. He was the top amateur in 1996, when he tied for 22nd. In 2001, by then the dominant player in the world, he finished tied for 25th while former No. 1 David Duval won.
Woods will turn 37 in December. He has won 14 major titles, including three British Opens. But our last vision of him standing on the top of a major tournament podium was at Torrey Pines in 2008, when he had to limp to get there. Since then, 15 players have won the 16 Grand Slam tournaments contested. The dominant player in that span, if one need be identified, was not Woods, but Ireland's Padraig Harrington, who won the next two majors after Woods beat Rocco Mediate on one leg that playoff Monday in La Jolla.
Since then, Woods and his golf game have mostly been bewitched, bothered and bewildered.
His marriage came apart, and so did his health and golf swing. He had more news conferences about infidelity than golf. A massive fan base that once loved him unconditionally split down the middle into: We will love you no matter what; (or) We hope you crash and burn every time out.
For a while, a career that had introduced the thrill of victory to America's sports fans introduced instead the word bimbo. Woods had once dominated the Internet with news of glory and grandeur. Quickly, that turned to rumor and innuendo.
The climb back has been long and painful. Divorce closed one chapter. A new swing coach and lots of medical attention to knees and Achilles' tendons seem to have closed another.
And so he arrives at this British Open appearing more rested, confident and poised to have a run at being Tiger Woods again.
Numbers point to it. He has won three times this year, leads the PGA Tour's FedEx point standings — whatever those are — and already has $4.2 million in winnings. He has played 17 rounds under 70 this year, shot a closing 62 to nearly beat Rory McIlroy at the Honda Classic and shot 72-68-67-69 to win at the recent AT&T. He is now back to No. 4 in the world rankings and, with a massive failure in the British by the three players in front of him — Luke Donald, McIlroy and Lee Westwood — he could be No. 1 again if he wins Sunday.
Here, he is looking and sounding less defensive. There seems to be more confidence and less anger.
He was asked if he were surprised to be back in position to be No. 1.
"No," he said, smiling, not glaring.
He remains the spigot that opens a flow of casual fans to the golf courses and TV sets. Love him or hate him, they still want to watch him. We are a society of celebrity worshipers, and he remains golf's biggest celebrity.
He hinted that the things he has been working on, his nonstop references to "the process," are coming to fruition.
"They are starting to solidify," he said.
His pre-tournament preparation, always sharp, showed a razor's edge Tuesday.
Because of the more-than-normal rain here recently, the greens are softer and more receptive. Woods pointed that out and didn't need to say that favored him because he hits the ball so high. He said that those who can shape shots and strategize will do best here, which immediately conjured up memories of his 2006 victory at Hoylake, which had dried out in a rare British heat wave. Woods spent the entire tournament hitting irons off the tee, some that went 300 yards, and shot 67-65-71-67.
He talked about the psychological difference it makes to start a round with a par three, as they will at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. He talked like a man who has plotted routes around or over all 205 bunkers on the course.
"A five-degree wind shift changes an entire golf course…," he said.
About the only thing missing in his analysis was the effect of the Earth's rotation.
Talk, of course, can be cheap, and has been with Woods going into recent majors. But there seems to be less glaze in the eyes and more resolve in the voice this time. That makes him either ready to win, finally, or an improving actor.
For Woods, it has been a year that seems to have turned a corner. He got into the final group at the AT&T at Pebble Beach in February and was stared down and beaten by Phil Mickelson. Three weeks later, he closed with the 62 at the Honda Classic, and, despite having blow-up rounds that took him out of title runs at the Masters and U.S. Open, the line on the 2012 Tiger Woods chart seems to be heading up.
Maybe this is the year of last-gasping by resurgent veterans. Maybe Roger Federer at Wimbledon is an omen. Maybe it is time that all the maybes about Tiger Woods end.