There was a time when I thought Tiger Woods would win every tournament he played. Of course, that didn't happen.

It just felt like it did.

I remember going to Torrey Pines in 2000 to see if he could make it seven straight wins on the PGA Tour, but to everyone's surprise, an exhausted Woods was off his game ... and still finished second.

At the end of 2006 into January of the following year, he ran off eight wins in a row, if you count all the tournaments he played, and that wasn't even the stretch his estranged caddie, Steve Williams, considers Tiger's greatest.

From August 2007 until what remains his last major win -- the 2008 U.S. Open -- Woods played in 12 tournaments, winning nine and finishing second twice. In the other start, he had his worst outing: a fifth at Doral.

 

 

Six in a row, eight in a row, nine of 12, seven of 12 consecutive majors: Be sure, we'll never see that level of domination again.

What's important about this stretch, too, is that Woods was injured -- two separate injuries, to his left knee and leg -- from the start of 2008.

So much so that by the time he got to Torrey Pines -- a course that meant so much, sentimentally, to him -- for that U.S. Open, he was essentially playing on one good leg. He did not play and could not practice much in the two months between that Masters and U.S. Open.

Yet he would go on to win -- relying on his brilliant short game -- in a famous playoff against Rocco Mediate.

Last week, Woods came back from relatively minor back surgery to play the Quicken Loans National and missed the cut by four shots.

He expected to be rusty and exceeded his expectations.

And in exceeding them, he managed to lower expectations about what it is that Tiger Woods is about these days.

To many, he was the greatest of all time.

But six years since winning that last major, is he still?

He didn't sound like it while trying to turn last week's lemons into lemonade.

"I hate to say it, but I'm really encouraged by what happened this week," he replied when I asked if his confidence was hurt by such a poor comeback showing.

"I missed the cut by four shots. That's a lot. But the fact that what I was able to do physically and the speed I had and distance that I was hitting the golf ball again, I had not done that in a very long time. And to recover like I did overnight, still leery about it, how am I going to recover?

"Felt great today."

Felt great and shot a 4-over-par 75 -- Tiger's New Math.

There will be those who feel it's too harsh to criticize a golfer coming off a three-month layoff and especially one coming off back surgery.

But this is the great Tiger Woods we're talking about, not some journeyman, and it's hard to imagine the old Tiger embracing excuses or mediocrity.

And remember that Woods insisted in May that the time off recuperating from surgery was a blessing, as it had allowed him time to work on his short game.

Except that his short game at Congressional was as horrible as it's ever been.

Woods only got up-and-down on three of 16 missed greens.

Imagine if he hadn't worked on his short game.

For perspective, consider that in 2008 -- hampered by injuries and unable to practice much -- he missed 103 greens and saved par 71 times.

As he does too often, Woods constantly hit chips and pitches fat at the Quicken Loans and couldn't rely on his putter -- a savior in the old days -- to come to his rescue.

He had seven putts between four and eight feet and made just two; this is Tiger Woods we're talking about, not Vijay Singh.

What's more astonishing is that when I asked him about his hapless short game, Woods blamed ... the grass.

"I've been practicing on Bermuda grass, and I grew the grass up at my house and it was Bermuda rough, but come out here and play Rye, it's totally different, and it showed," he said with a shrug.

"I was off. I probably should have spent more time chipping over on the chipping green than I did, but that's the way it goes."

That's the way it goes?

And how, then, will it go at Hoylake, where the British Open begins in three weeks' time?

"Well, I'm going to take my kids on a nice little vacation, which will be nice, next week," he said.

After that, he added, he'll "start gearing up."

Whatever, these days, that might mean.