Even Tiger doesn't know when he'll return

In the quiet moments to come, Tiger Woods will begin the healing process that eventually will bring him back to the competitive arena. Earl Woods would want it that way -- his son back on the golf course, playing the game he taught him to play, preparing for this next phase of his career. Not that it will be easy. "No matter how much you prepare yourself for it, it still hurts," said Tiger's close friend John Cook. "Tiger has been incredibly strong the last couple of days, incredibly strong. But now that the service is over and friends and family aren't by his side, it's a time for reflection. You deal with it ... but it's going to be a little while."

How long? Nobody at the memorial held Friday at the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, Calif., had a clue. Not agent Mark Steinberg. Not caddie Steve Williams. Not any of the family and friends who assembled to pay respects. They didn't know because Tiger didn't know. "One thing I do know," he told them. "I'll be ready to play when it's time."

Speculation has centered on the Memorial, an event Woods has won three times and one that is hosted by Jack Nicklaus, who also lost his father at age 30 and, along with wife Barbara, would provide a comforting voice. The opening round is June 1, three weeks and one day after Earl's death -- and two weeks before the U.S. Open. It's almost inconceivable Woods would go 10 weeks, from The Masters to the Open, without hitting a shot in competition.

But if that were the case, Woods would be the one person who could handle it. "Tiger always plays well coming off long breaks," said Isleworth neighbor Stuart Appleby. "It's like he doesn't care. That's a trait I wish I had as a player."

Look no further than the start of the 2006 season for an example. Woods skipped the Mercedes Championships to be with his father. He didn't touch a club for four weeks, not playing a competitive round between the end of the Target World Challenge Dec. 11 and the start of the Buick Invitational Jan. 26. He shot 10-under 278 at Torrey Pines and won in a playoff. The next week, he flew to Dubai and beat Ernie Els.

It was a scenario he originated coming off knee surgery in 2003 -- he won at Torrey Pines by four strokes -- but the rehabilitation now is more mental than physical. "This is an emotional strain," said Lucas Glover, who still is recovering from the death of instructor Dick Harmon. "It might be more difficult than he imagines, but I don't know. Tiger is as mentally strong as he is physically strong."

Sport psychologist Gio Valiante points out, "If it's a legitimate grieving process, it's going to suck the life out of him. It's going to be harder than he thinks." But Valiante also has studied how Woods motivates himself. "Tiger is a smart guy. He has prepared for this. He'll let it run its course and come back with a focus we haven't seen since '97, '99, 2000," he predicted.

Nicklaus felt guilty he hadn't put more into his career in the 18 months before his father's death in 1970, and he played that year's first two majors while in a personal fog. But he followed with a stretch that included four firsts and three seconds in the next nine majors, using his guilt at disappointing his dad as an inspiration.

Woods played hard throughout his father's illness but definitely was drained by it. He missed the cut in last year's Funai Classic at Walt Disney World at a time when Earl was suffering, and he flew to California two days before the opening round of the Players Championship in March to be at his father's bedside.

When he does go back to work, Woods will not be dealing with the same real-life issues that were weighing on him in the latter stages of Earl's life. "He'll be taking time off, but he'll still be practicing," pointed out Stephen Ames, who felt the brunt of Tiger's motivational power in losing 9 and 8 at this year's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. "I imagine he'll be down in Florida, hitting balls, with [instructor Hank Haney] watching his positions. For Tiger, coming back after a layoff isn't a problem because he's so strong mentally. Jack Nicklaus was the same way. Their greatest strength is their minds."

How much will Tiger the golfer miss Earl? As Woods said at the service, the lessons Earl passed on have been ingrained in his soul -- like the voice he heard before the crucial putt on the 71st hole of the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah telling him to "trust your stroke." Earl was in Cypress, Calif.; Tiger was in the suburbs of Chicago.

What will Earl's voice be saying to his son during the next couple of weeks? Whether Tiger is floating on top of the ocean in his yacht or diving with the sharks in it, whether he's on the range at Isleworth or on the tee at Muirfield Village in Jack's tournament, Woods will never leave his father's side.

"Tiger knows his place in history," Cook said. "That's not going to change."

Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.