Tiger Woods is back: Do we still care?

Yes, we still care. We cannot quit Tiger Woods.

So we tuned in Tuesday morning to his 40-minute televised news conference that previewed his return to competition in this week's Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.

Many of us cannot relate to the robotic, closed-off figure I saw strolling the fairways at Hazeltine National during the Ryder Cup: Fans hollered "We love you, Tiger!" and "We miss you!" and Woods responded with … nothing. No acknowledgment, no wave, no nod, no smile.

Woods will never be Arnold Palmer, who could make a fan's day with eye contact or a firm handshake.

Yet most of us, perhaps all of us, are now rooting for him.

At his best, he was THE best. In any sport. His 2000 season was borderline immaculate, with three major championships, nine victories and 17 top-5s in 20 U.S. tournaments.

Now 40 years old with a body that betrayed him — "If I couldn't get out of bed, how could I swing a club 120 mph?" he said Tuesday — we hope for a rebirth. So do his fans, his peers and anyone financially connected to the game.

His opening statement Tuesday was telling, in one respect. At his peak, Tiger was a lone wolf.

"What I think most people really don't understand is how much of a fraternity this tour really is," he said. "The amount of dinners I've gone out to with the guys, the texts, the phone calls over the last 14-16 months, the guys wanting me to come out here and play, (offering) to help me in any way possible.

"Playing practice rounds at home with the guys for a little side change has been fun. But to get out here at this level has been a challenge. A lot of hard work and an inordinate amount of patience."

The Hero event, which starts Thursday, is perfect for Woods' re-entry to competitive golf. It's an 18-man event with no cut and a field stuffed with Tiger supporters such as Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth.

Every player is ranked in the top 40 except Woods, who enters as Chaminade going against the likes of Kentucky and Duke. Woods is ranked 898th.

He joked earlier Tuesday on the Golf Channel that his goal is to "sneak my way into the top 1,000," but he turned deadly serious when asked about his goals this week.

"I care," he said. "I care about what I do out there. I want to win."

And: "What you don't realize is: Yeah, when I'm playing (casually), it's different. When I'm competing, I'm there to beat you. That's it. I don't care if it's my best friend, (Mark) O'Meara, at the Match Play. I'm not conceding a putt to him this far. I'm here to beat you."

Woods did concede, though, that he's entering "Phase 2" of his life.

That phase could include significant involvement in the plan to combine Chicago's Jackson Park and South Shore into a championship-level course with a caddie program to benefit South Side youth. Woods is a budding architect.

Johnny Miller can relate. At one point viewed as the world's best player after Jack Nicklaus, his game went south around the time he turned 30. His priorities became family, broadcasting and designing courses.

"I think Tiger is trying to segue, and it's a good segue," Miller told the Tribune earlier this month at the Western Golf Association's Green Coat Gala at the Peninsula Hotel. "But usually once you start designing courses, it's a sign. … It's so relaxing and gratifying that it almost supersedes playing. For once in your life, you're doing something meaningful, but you don't have to keep score the same way you did in golf. But I think he still has a little gas left in the tank."

Miller said he has seen a maturation in Woods that could be good for him as a human being but less beneficial as a golfer.

"His dad trained him to be a warrior — seek and destroy," Miller said. "He has learned that friendships are very valuable. I'm not sure how good that is for your golf game.

"The hardest part about golf is that you keep score. Frank Sinatra, when he was 7, was probably singing about (a score equivalent to) 79. But nobody kept score. It was Frank Sinatra. In life, a 79 is a 79. You can't run away from it. Arnold Palmer was amazing because he'd go play even though he wasn't shooting great scores. His passion to play was so great. I'm not sure if Tiger has that mentality to shoot non-competitively and still have interest in it.

"It's important, regardless of what he is really thinking, that he says: 'I don't know how I'm gonna shoot; if I have a real good tournament, I might be surprised.' He needs to lower the expectations. To say that anything other than winning is a failure … this is a different Tiger Woods than when he was younger. I told (Woods' friend) Notah Begay to tell him that. I don't know if it got to him. He doesn't listen to me, anyway. That's all right."

tgreenstein@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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