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If history teaches us anything, it's that Tiger will come back stronger than ever

BETHESDA, Md. -- It sounds like something out of a film noir thriller, or maybe an old-time radio program starring an idyllic superhero. The intro music turns suspenseful and the narrator proclaims in a booming tone:

When last we saw Tiger Woods …


Then again, it seems like the only logical way to reintroduce the reigning U.S. Open champion, who was equal parts thriller and superhero two weeks ago at Torrey Pines. So here goes nothing:


When last we saw Tiger Woods … our hero was wincing the week away under the golden California sun, clutching and grabbing his knee while limping his way around 91 holes before finally closing out his 14th career major championship victory.


After the appropriate analysis, conjecture and forecasting following the announcement that he would miss the remainder of the 2008 season, I promised myself that I wouldn't write another column specifically about Woods until he returned to competitive golf. Or at least until he commenced practicing once again. OK, fine, I would have even settled for his first public appearance on crutches.


Monday's conference call with the media? Even though he could only be heard and not seen, let's just say I couldn't fire up the laptop quick enough. After all, during Tiger's absence you can only write so much about a guy named Taco winning something called the Scottish Challenge (true story) before pining for the good ol' days when Woods was a major story just for showing up.


But here's the thing: Woods still is a story, even while he recuperates from recent surgery to correct a torn ACL in his left knee and recovers from a double stress fracture in his tibia. His future is now shrouded in mystery, with questions that can't be answered until he returns to tournament golf, whether that time is six months, nine months or even a year from now. Will he be the same dominant player we've known for the past dozen years? Will he be better? Worse?


These are questions for which even Woods doesn't have any answers.


"As far as long term, I really don't know," he said during the conference call to promote this week's AT&T National, where he'll likely serve as an absentee tournament host. "We have to see how this thing heals. Everyone heals at a different rate. Some people are back to playing sports in six months, some are nine, some are 12. So to be honest with you, no one really knows until we start the rehab process and see how this thing heals."


Of course, this is hardly the first time Woods has had an element of the great unknown affecting what's only seemed like an undeterred career path. Since turning professional, he's switched caddies, swing instructors and swings (twice). He got married. His father died. He became a father himself.


Through it all, Woods has seen only brief spells of discontent on the course, each time usurped by greater successes. What does it all mean going forward? Well, there are basically three things that can happen: Either the knee injury will gradually become worse over the years and his game will deteriorate along with it, or he'll continue as very much the same player we've seen rise to the top of the World Ranking for more than 500 weeks during his career, or -- and here's where it gets really interesting -- he'll return … even better than before.


Don't believe it? Listen to Tiger and you'll understand that upon his full recovery he's been assured of better health than he has seen in an awfully long time.


"I've been trying to adjust over the years to alleviate some of the stress I do put on my left leg. But basically, my left knee's been sore for 10, 12 years, so it will be nice to finally have a healthy leg," Woods said. "The doctors have assured me that my long-term health will be a hell of a lot better than it's been over the past decade. So I'm really looking forward to that, and not having pain after I'm playing and while I'm playing."


"There were no surprises during the procedure," Dr. Thomas D. Rosenberg, one of the surgeons who performed the operation, confirmed last week. "And as we have said, with the proper rehabilitation and training, it is highly unlikely that Mr. Woods will have any long-term effects as it relates to his career."


While doctors can speculate that Woods will return to competition in better health, there's no way of knowing how it will affect the bottom line on his scorecards. Anyone who says they believe otherwise is simply guessing.


Here's one thing I do know, though: Woods will never play with more pain than he felt during the U.S. Open. His knee will never be in worse physical shape, his body will never be less conditioned for a major championship.


And yes, he won that one.


All of which leads me to believe that Tiger Woods at less than 100 percent -- be it 90 percent or 50 percent -- is still better than every other pro at full health. And if he does return to the 100 percent level, a destination Woods claims he hasn't visited in quite a long time, our hero may have plenty of thrills left to come.


Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.