Through the first three rounds of the Abu Dhabi Championship in the United Arab Emirates, Tiger Woods was in flashback mode, playing as if he were still the world's No. 1 golfer by a large margin. He was atop the leaderboard entering Sunday's final round, a position he hadn't enjoyed in an official tournament in more than two years.
The ending was disappointing, with Woods finishing third to unheralded Englishman Robert Rock. But it also marked Woods' third consecutive top-three finish, including a win at the Chevron World Challenge, a charitable event that marked his first victory since November 2009 … the month his world came to a crash.
Despite falling short Sunday, Woods was upbeat about his performance. "I'm pleased at the progress," he told reporters after shooting par in the final round to finish two strokes back. "Basically, since playing in Australia [at the end of 2011], my stroke-play events have been pretty good. I just need to keep building, keep getting more consistent."
Woods has been so dominant over the course of his career, winning 14 major championships, that comparisions to his old self are almost unfair. Besides the turmoil in his personal life, he's undergone a series of injuries and swing changes. Combined, those factors might preclude him from ever making a full return to his former glory.
One thing is clear about Woods nowadays: Opponents are no longer intimidated when he's playing well or in the lead, which used to be a slam dunk. This was the third time in the last five events that Woods lost his 54-hole lead. With his aura gone, Woods needs to improve his consistency if he's to resume his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles.
"There's plenty of big events to go," Woods said Sunday. "I just need to keep building, keep getting more consistent, and today was a day where I putted beautifully. Just didn't give myself enough looks."
He's clearly headed in the right direction.
A few months ago he dropped out of the top 50 in the world golf rankings for the first time in nearly 15 years. But after his recent play, including the Abu Dhabi Championship, Woods has climbed back inside the top 20. He's at No. 17 in the latest rankings.
Is he back? Not quite. But that goal — far off not long ago — is coming into seeing distance.