Back to the future for Tiger Woods

In Sept. 1996, Tiger Woods turned pro with that "Hello, World" speech before the start of the Greater Milwaukee Open. The "Chosen One" had finally arrived on the world stage to assume his rightful place as the next global superstar, like Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan. He wouldn't simply be a golfer who won a lot of tournaments. He would transcend the sport and bring a game that many perceived as elitist to the masses. He would make lazy Sunday afternoons more exciting for golf fans.

In short time he fulfilled all those promises. His epic 12-stroke win at the 1997 Masters would be the beginning of a decade-long reign as the most dominant and consistent performer that the sports world had ever seen. We would watch his game, swing, body and personal life evolve in the way that one might see a child actor grow up on television. Love him or hate him, he was golf's precious jewel.

That was the first phase, the first dimension of the Tiger Woods life story, the one where everything went more or less as planned -- with the exception of the death of his father, Earl Woods, when Tiger was 30, and the breakup of the prodigy's marriage after his extramarital affairs, as well as the knee injuries.

Still, that's a pretty good start to a life.

Now the 35-year-old father of two is in a second phase, where the future of his golf career is clearly uncertain.

Woods arrives at the Frys.com Open this week after an almost two-month break from competitive golf. The last time he played was at the PGA Championship, where he easily missed the cut. Obsessed with making swing changes, Woods has been working hard with his teacher, Sean Foley, since the former world No. 1 failed to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs for the first time in his career.

Tiger is playing in this unheralded Fall Series event to sharpen his game before he goes to Australia next month for the Australian Open and the Presidents Cup. For the first time in 15 years, he's outside the top 50 in the world ranking, dropping to 51st after this past weekend. The last time he was ranked this low was Oct. 13, 1996, when Tiger was 61st in the world.

Coming to the Frys.com Open must feel like an anniversary of sorts for him, a reminder of his beginnings as a professional, when he played in events like the Quad City Classic, Las Vegas Invitational, the La Cantera Texas Open and the B.C. Open to plant roots on the PGA Tour. It's now a little more than 15 years and a month since he gave that valedictory speech in Milwaukee, Wis.

With Tiger's lead, the game has changed significantly. The power that he displayed in the mid-to-late 1990s is now commonplace on the PGA Tour. Players are also generally more physically fit than they were a decade ago. That's all due to Tiger. The golf courses are trying to keep up with the equipment technology by building longer golf courses to suit the power game that Tiger seemed to institutionalize after his dominance at Augusta in 1997.

Yet if the mystique is gone or at least a little dimmer, what's left of that Tiger Woods who first hypnotized us with that boyish charm and toothy grin?

That effortlessly athletic and powerful golf swing from Milwaukee is gone, lost through many swing changes and knee injuries. That bony frame with the slightly slumped shoulders has been replaced with the build of a defensive back. His legendary courage and ability to play through pain didn't seem present when he quit during his first round of the Players Championship in May, citing difficulty with walking the course on his bad leg, despite the fact that he had been on it all week. That great mental game wasn't in evidence at the PGA Championship, where he chalked up some of his horrible course decisions to trying to do too much coming off of a long layoff.

I'm almost there. I'm almost there. That seems to be his favorite refrain.

This could be the week that the second phase begins nearly in the same way that the first phase started 15 years ago. He should look at it that way. When Derek Jeter went down for a rehab stint with the New York Yankees' Double-A affiliate Trenton Thunder in June, he said the trip helped him to appreciate all the work it took for him to get from that point to Yankee Stadium and five World Series titles. Jeter came back to the team rejuvenated, finished the regular season with a .297 batting average and reached the 3,000 hits milestone in dramatic fashion. I was one of many critics who had written him off as a has-been living off his past success. A lot of pundits have said much of the same thing about Tiger Woods.

Tiger is not golf. Why are we still talking about him?

You hear that often nowadays from fans and even from some of those people inside the ropes who are seizing the opportunity to get a hold on the game while its biggest star is on the mend with his personal life and game in ruin. Rory McIlroy said earlier this year that Tiger had lost his "aura" and was playing "like an ordinary golfer." Trust me, lesser-pedigreed players than McIlroy feel the same way.

Patrick Cantlay is one of the players trying to compare his game against the best in golf this week, including Woods. On Thursday, the 19-year-old UCLA sophomore will get a chance to show his stuff in front of one of his heroes as the two will be paired together in the first two rounds along with 2010 British Open champ Louis Oosthuizen.

Cantlay, the U.S. Amateur runner-up, got a sponsor's exemption into the tournament last month. If he continues to play like a seasoned tour pro -- after a top-10 and three other top-25s in his four PGA Tour events this year -- the pressure will mount for him to turn pro next summer, despite repeated statements that he plans to stay in school all four years. If he beats Tiger this week playing head to head and goes on to have a good tournament, what incentive does he have to stay in school, other than to keep his amateur status to accept the Masters invitation?

When Tiger turned pro 15 years ago after winning his third straight U.S. Amateur, there was nothing left for him to do at the amateur level. By staying in school all four years, Cantlay could waste a very valuable couple years of competition against players like McIlroy, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Ryo Ishikawa and Matteo Manassero, who are all of his generation.

There wasn't a similar convergence of great young players on the scene when Tiger joined the tour in '96. As a 20-year-old, Tiger was the only player capable of taking the baton from battle-weary Greg Norman, who had thrown away a 6-shot lead that April in the final round of the Masters, clearing the way for Nick Faldo to win his third green jacket. Phil Mickelson was a great player, but he would need the rise of Tiger to help him elevate his game. Then came Tiger's turn at the '97 Masters, where he changed that tournament and golf forever.

But that's old news now. This week Tiger needs to beat Cantlay and throngs of hungry players who are trying to keep their jobs for next year. Last year's winner at the Frys.Com Open, Rocco Mediate, will try to defend his title, but it would be surprising to see him perform any of the heroics that carried him to his sixth PGA Tour win. He's been hampered for most of the year with nagging injuries. Last year when Mediate arrived at the CordeValle G.C. he was struggling, but still won the tournament with some exciting play that included four hole-outs for eagle.

Still, all eyes will be on Woods as he tries to assuage lingering doubts that many had when Fred Couples made him a Presidents Cup captain's pick last week. Woods also has to prove to himself that he's completely comfortable with Sean Foley's golf swing and that left leg.

No one would have thought 15 years ago, when the first phase of his career was ahead of him, that his second phase would go through San Jose and the second tier of the PGA Tour. But maybe this is the reminder that he needs to get him back to the freshness and optimism he had when he first announced his intentions to the world.

Hello, World. That still has a good ring to it.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.