In Tiger Woods' mind, he can still be great again

For a golfer like Tiger Woods, a wonderful memory can be a great thing, yet cruel at the same time. Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Tiger Woods is going to come back.

OK, so he almost certainly won't come back as that Tiger Woods, the one who made winning majors look easy; he likely won't come back as the post-scandal Tiger Woods who reinvented himself as the world's best player during an impressive second act of his career; he might not even resemble any early model of Tiger Woods, instead further reminding us of Willie Mays stumbling around the New York Mets outfield or Joe Namath feebly throwing passes for the Los Angeles Rams. But he is going to come back, in some shape or form.

In the wake of Woods' announcement that he recently followed a second back surgery in a year-and-a-half with a subsequent procedure, this news sounds implausible at best and impossible at worst, with laughable ranking somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. There is no timetable for his return, he turns 40 next month and we've seen an explosion of young winners. Woods could be excused for calling it quits on the sole basis of not wanting to settle for anything less than reaching his previous pinnacle.

That's not how his mind works, though.

He's stubborn, sure, but the prospect of otherwise fading into oblivion won't provoke his return. He thrives on bulletin board material, yes, but a necessity to prove wrong the doubters won't do it, either.

From his schedule-making to his rigid training regimen to the words he employs over and over, downplaying the good days and explaining away the bad, Woods thrives on routine.

It only feels like two decades since he was the game's most prominent player. But it was just 2013 when he cemented that second act of his career with his PGA Tour Player of the Year award after hitting rock-bottom, professionally and privately.

The fourth of his five victories that year came at the Players Championship, an event which had long neutralized Woods' powers over his peers. His second round that week ended on the par-5 ninth hole. After hitting his tee shot into trouble and laying up, Woods rolled in a 20-foot birdie putt to post a second straight score of 5-under 67. It was hardly one of his more impressive putts in a lifetime filled with them, but wasn't unremarkable, either.

Perhaps the most memorable part came minutes later, when he described the putt to reporters.

"That putt I've had before," he explained. "It just doesn't break as much from right to left as it looks, and actually it wants to creep back to the back part of the green. I trusted my old read and it went in."

I trusted my old read. He didn't simply hit the stroke based on how he saw the break or how the greens were rolling that day. Woods delved deep into a personal catalog of past putts, and plucked the appropriate combination of slope and speed from the files in his mind.

This wasn't the first time Woods revealed himself as a memory player, nor would it be the last.

A decade earlier, Woods rationalized a shot at the U.S. Open by insisting he'd hit the same one in a long-ago practice round. One year at Doral, he lamented a poor putting performance on resurfaced greens by admitting, "I putt a lot by memory." Dig around and you'll find plenty of examples throughout his career.

Some golfers are technical in their on-course approaches, trying to employ the same swings and putting strokes every time. Others are feel players, allowing the lay of the land and weather conditions to account for subtle changes in each maneuver.

Woods is the rare player who competes largely based on memory. He might use this knowledge to realize that a shifting wind is always too understated around Amen Corner, or that a putt through the Valley of Sin slightly differs from similar shots. For better or worse, his memory has often dictated how he plays a certain shot. There are times like that ninth-hole birdie at The Players two years ago when it's an invaluable resource, and times like that year at Doral when it's a hidden curse.

All of which brings us back to the topic at hand. Woods is going to come back for one main reason: His memory tells him he can still be the world's best player.

The rest of us might snicker at such an outlandish notion. This is the game's 362nd-ranked player, right behind someone named Jazz Janewattananond. This is a player who is currently on bed rest, who has undergone multiple surgeries, who appears to be aging at an increasingly rapid rate while the elite echelon continues to skew younger.

It doesn't matter. Not to him.

In recent years, Woods has often smiled in response to questions about his career arc and recited the phrase, "Father Time is undefeated." He's compared his game at this late stage of his career to that of Michael Jordan trading in slam dunks for fadeaway jump shots.

He still remembers, though. Not like the rest of us, either, who simply house in our minds those images of a red shirt-clad Woods pumping his fist in celebration. He remembers vividly how it felt to know he was better at golf than every other person walking the planet; to be in complete control of his game; to win golf tournaments with something less than his best stuff.

Throughout his worst season as a professional and the multiple surgeries and the current bed rest, Woods has presumably pondered his own mortality as a golfer. He understands this could be the beginning of the end - or perhaps more accurately, the middle of the end.

But that idea underscores his instincts as a memory player.

Instead, he'll recall how he's returned from injuries before. How he proved the doubters wrong. How he hit rock-bottom and worked his way back to the top.

Really, it's not so different from standing over a 20-foot birdie putt and trusting what he's always known. That's what a memory player does. That's what Tiger Woods will do when he returns, in whatever shape and form that might be.