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The latest version of Tiger Woods might be the greatest

From ESPN - December 5, 2017

NASSAU, Bahamas -- Tiger Woods had informally met Tommy Fleetwood on a few occasions, but it was not 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 will readily admit it, too, crowing to anyone who will listen that "Father Time is undefeated."

It's not just his age -- he will 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 will 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 am 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 have 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.

Tiger Woods discussing his legacy so far

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