He is still the top-ranked golfer in the world. That little fact seems to escape the sporting public given to whispers about Tiger Woods these days. He hasn't won a major in almost two years--is his knee bothering him? Is Elin Nordegren, the Swedish beauty to whom Woods proposed in November (she said yes), a distraction? Does he miss Butch Harmon, his old swing coach? Woods just flashes a $75 million smile. "I'm so close to putting it together," he promised while finishing tied for 22nd in this year's Masters tournament.
That's a scary thought. After crushing the 1997 Masters with a 12-stroke win to become, at 21, Augusta's youngest champion, Tiger went through a similar drought, going 28 months without winning a major. He followed that lag with the Tiger Slam: four straight titles, from the 2000 U.S. Open through the 2001 Masters. Like Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan before him, Tiger has blurred perspective. When only four golfers have won more majors than you have, at 28, honors like five straight Player of the Year awards are no longer good enough.
Tomorrow, if he were to run off with Nordegren, leave behind the expectations and retire on the Nike dime, golf and sports would forever be indebted. He forced millions to stay home on Sunday afternoons--to watch tournaments that were long decided--just to catch his swing. He's the rare phenom who has exceeded the hype. But the soldiers of Tiger's army, who perch on creaky tree branches to get a glimpse of their hero, need not worry. Like Jordan, one of his best friends, Woods would never quit without reaching that pinnacle once again. And like Mike, he'll be back. --By Sean Gregory