Tiger comeback packed with puzzles

As Roger Federer breezed through his first-round match at Wimbledon like it was a dress rehearsal, the result known to all before a ball had been served, it struck me how he still can be as magnificent as ever.

But then I remembered an unpalatable truth for the 30-year-old: It’s been 2 1/2 long years since he won the most recent of his record 16 majors, and in that time he’s only made one Grand Slam final.

It’s not like Federer’s fallen off the map. He’s won 12 titles around the world in these 2 1/2 years, and has beaten both men above him in the world rankings, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal.

But we don’t really remember any of those.

We remember the big ones.

And so it is with Tiger Woods, who returns to tournament golf at this week’s AT&T National after his latest major disappointment, two weeks ago at San Francisco’s Olympic Club in the US Open.

Three years ago, while Woods was winning this event when it was last held at Congressional Country Club, his Swiss friend had just beaten Andy Roddick, 16-14 in the fifth set, to win for the sixth time at the All England Club.

It was the second time in 2009 that they’d both won on the same day.

“His are a hell of a lot bigger than mine, though,” Woods said at the time.

“He won two Slams (French Open and Wimbledon) and I won two tour events.

“Hopefully I can get the majors now.”

A forlorn hope.

It’s been more than four years since Woods won his 14th major, by far the longest drought of his career.

But at age 36 — which is, what, about 24 in tennis years? — it’s not like he can be written off.

Like Federer, Woods still can beat them all, just like he did in the old days.

He’s already won two events this season, at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill and the Memorial, at Jack Nicklaus’ place.

But after promising so much with those victories, he flopped at the majors that followed them, just as he had — coincidentally — in 2009, when he won the tournament before each of the four majors.

Woods returned to the course on Tuesday, fresh from a week spent with his children and not, he made a point to say, working on his game.

He’d had time to chew the fat over what had happened to him at the Open — where he held a share of the halfway lead only to fade badly on the weekend — and came to the conclusion that he’d been “a fraction off.”

“I didn’t particularly chip or putt well,” he said.

“Obviously at the Open, that’s just one of the things you have to do, and I didn’t do that.”

It was a thought that appeared to have triggered a rare admission by Woods that things with his game aren’t quite humming along.

“I would say certainly my short game has been something that has taken a hit,” he conceded.

He meant that it had slipped because he’d spent so much of his time ingraining the new golf swing taught to him by Sean Foley.

“It did the same thing when I was working with Butch (Harmon) and the same thing when I was working with Hank (Haney),” Woods said. "During that period of time, my short game went down, and it’s because I was working on my full game.

"Eventually I get to a point where the full game becomes very natural feeling, and I can repeat it day after day, and I can dedicate most of my time to my short game again.”

It’s something of a specious argument, because there’s enough sunlight in south Florida to allow a touring professional time to sharpen arguably the most crucial element of his game.

Or maybe that’s what regular tour events are for now that Woods has tied Nicklaus with 73 wins?

Woods, of course, insists that they still matter to him.

“Absolutely,” he said, “Absolutely I want to win.”

But as impressive as a third victory this season would be, it would only make it even more puzzling that Tiger Woods isn’t able to do it on the big stage.