A thankful Tiger returns with new perspective on game he once dominated

Collins says Tiger is 'truly' back (1:37)

Michael Collins and Bob Harig explain what they liked from Tiger Woods over the weekend during the Hero World Challenge and how he can use this performance as motivation moving forward. (1:37)

NASSAU, Bahamas -- Tiger Woods had informally met Tommy Fleetwood on a few occasions, but it wasn't until Tuesday of this past week's Hero World Challenge that they actually engaged in conversation. Like just about every professional golfer in his demographic, the 26-year-old Fleetwood grew up watching Woods dominate tournaments and had always dreamed of competing against him.

Now it was happening. And here they were face-to-face, getting a chance to become acquainted.

The relationships between many of golf's up-and-coming talents and the 14-time major champion is akin to those of Woods and his old buddies of a previous generation -- players such as Mark O'Meara and John Cook -- in that he serves partly as a fellow competitor who still wants to beat 'em every week and partly as a sage mentor who can offer a more experienced player's perspective.

As if to prove that point, upon meeting Fleetwood, Woods went into full dad mode.

"When are you going to get your hair cut?" he needled the folically-friendly Fleetwood.

"My dad's been saying that to me for years," said the Englishman, who'd actually gotten a trim the day before. "Tiger's slightly better at golf than my dad, though."

Woods is an elder statesman now, his chiseled frame no mask for a thinning hairline and graying whiskers. He'll readily admit it, too, crowing to anyone who will listen that "Father Time is undefeated."

It's not just his age -- he'll turn 42 on Dec. 30 -- that classifies Woods among players with more miles on the tires. A rigorous practice regimen as a youth means he's probably swung at more golf balls than others his age. And four back surgeries in the past four years are enough to keep even one of the greatest golfers of all time from feeling spry.

All of which makes what happened at the Hero, if it is indeed the Return of Tiger, so impressive.

It can also allow us to dream a little dream.

Picture this: Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and the bevy of next-gen talents continue competing at high levels -- only next year, they'll be joined by the man they idolized growing up, a man returning to prominence for the first time in many of their careers, mirroring his performance last week with laser-beam drives and an immaculate putting stroke.

Call it the best of both worlds. Call it the perfect scenario. Call it the potential doorway to an unprecedented Golden Age in the game.

"There's probably really no words to describe it," Thomas said. "Golf's already in, I'm biased, but I would say it's maybe in the best place it's been. ... It's hard to do the things that he did in terms of winning that many tournaments in a year with how deep the Tour is and just how many good, hungry young players there are. But it would be fun."

Spieth concurred, offering, "It would be awesome. I feel like the game's been in a really cool place, with younger guys being able to win. But the Tiger element absolutely accentuates anything that is good in the game right now."

Even just a year ago, there was a sense from Woods that he wanted to return not as some updated version of himself, but as the same ruthless, relentless competitor who won 79 PGA Tour titles without cracking a smile until victory was clinched.

It feels different now. There was a change this week in Tiger's tone, one that showed he's more comfortable with the elder statesman role than he was before. He's not only aware of what he means to the game, but he also might understand better than ever, after 10 months away, what the game means to him.

"I was very thankful this morning," he admitted after Thursday's opening round, his first in 301 days. "I was, in my head, thanking all the people who have helped me in giving me a chance to come back and play this round again. There were a lot of people that were instrumental in my life -- friends, outside people I've never met before, obviously my surgeon. So there have been a lot of people. I was very thankful. I made sure in my head to try and thank every one of them."

He might not be Michael Jordan with the Washington Wizards or Joe Montana with the Kansas City Chiefs or George Foreman battling tomato cans, but he's also not the fresh-faced pup in the oversized polo who took Augusta National by storm two decades ago and never looked back.

Don't get the wrong idea: Woods isn't ready to pass any ceremonial torch to the younger generation, one already brimming with superstars. What he is ready for is the underdog role. The guy who has endured so many surgeries he shouldn't be able to walk. The guy who was the oldest player in this week's field. The guy who was 1,167 world ranking spots behind the next lowest-ranked competitor in the Bahamas.

Woods finished in a share of ninth place at Albany Golf Club, but for perhaps the first time in his career, he led the field in humility.

"I think it's very flattering, very humbling, that so many people really enjoyed what I've done throughout my first 20 years on Tour," he said of the attention his return received. "I put a few smiles and few excitements into people's lives, and as an athlete it's very humbling."

The evolution of Tiger is equal parts fascinating and startling. It's as if his rigid exterior has melted, revealing a softened core. He has stared career mortality in the face on multiple occasions.

Which helps explain why the current comeback is unlike the previous ones. This feels like a celebration of everything he has meant to the game. There is no scandal this time, no controversy, none of the past issues which proved he's far from flawless. He has transformed from polarizing to likeable, his mere presence on the leaderboard a paean to those good ol' glory days.

It was just after high noon on Thursday when a few hundred spectators gathered around the first tee at Albany, their collective gaze zipping past Thomas, the reigning player of the year and most recent major champion, to the man who used to make such honors a regularity. As far as Tiger galleries go, this one was a mere smattering. As far as galleries go in this secluded tropical resort, it was Tigermania all over again.

Three days later, as Tiger cleaned up a 3-putt bogey on the final hole, he received a hero's response from the group of spectators that had ballooned to much more than a smattering.

There was a buzz in the air, and it had little to do with Fowler's unconscionably low round to win. It was all about the tournament host.

"I think it's very flattering, very humbling, that so many people really enjoyed what I've done throughout my first 20 years on Tour."
Tiger Woods discussing his legacy so far

Now, we all get it: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. We've been in these situations before, where Woods appears ready to tackle a full schedule, only to injure himself again.

And so as much as anyone wants to scream "Tiger is back!" from the rooftops, that notion comes with a healthy dose of cautious optimism. We'd like to believe that he'll compete at Torrey Pines next month, site of eight career professional victories. We'd like to think he'll be at Riviera, again as a tournament host. And then PGA National and Bay Hill, his first appearance at the latter since the death of one of his mentors, Arnold Palmer.

We'd like to know all of that is true, leading directly into the Masters, where maybe -- just maybe -- an older Tiger could show his young buddies a thing or two.

The dream scenario is easy to envision -- a back-nine leaderboard chock full of 20-something superstars, their names interrupted by a 42-year-old seeking his fifth career green jacket.

Even Woods understands what this would mean for the game.

"It would be fun," he said Sunday. "It would be a lot of fun for me and I think it would be a lot of fun for them. The camaraderie has been incredible. For them to pick up the phone and for them to text me a lot and call me a lot to try and get me out there playing. ... 'Let's play today, let's play tomorrow, let's play the next day.' They want me to compete, they want me to come back. They're doing everything they can to help me out."

This is a new Tiger. He's humble, he smiles, he thanks his fellow players. He tells dad jokes and busts guys' chops for needing a haircut.

He also owns a little more perspective on his role. He's one of the older guys now, but that doesn't mean he can't still turn back the clock.

Like he says, Father Time is undefeated. But Woods is still trying to give him a good match on the back nine.