By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- To determine his success as a golfer, Tiger Woods only needed to look at one thing -- the top of the leaderboard.
Was his name there? If so, he was satisfied. If not, there was work to do.
But after having just returned to competition after a three-month layoff due to injury, Woods has been forced to adjust his definition of success. Sure, his main goal -- his only goal -- when he tees it up each week is to beat his competition. But he conceded Wednesday on the eve of the PGA Championship that success in 2011 can't be measured in the win column.
He's healthy again. If that's the only thing he accomplishes this year, then that's good enough.
"In order to win I had to be healthy," Woods said. "That's what we're trying to get to. Now I can go. Now I can do the work. I can do the practice sessions, and I think that that's the only way that my game will get to where I need to get to."
In the past, Woods has conceded nothing to his injury status; this is a guy who, after all, won the U.S. Open on one leg. But he went winless in 2010 and remains winless in 2011. Should he not break that drought the rest of this year ... well, that's something he'll accept since the tradeoff is his health.
Grudingly accept, of course. Having once held all four major championships at the same time, and owning 14 overall, he'd love nothing more than to add to that total this week at the Atlanta Athletic Club.
But Woods is 35 years old now, though, and he's been on the sidelines for the last three months, nursing a strained medial collateral ligament and Achilles tendon in his left leg suffered while hitting an awkward shot from under a tree limb at the 17th hole during the third round of the Masters. He thought he could compete again at THE PLAYERS Championship but the pain forced him to withdraw after nine holes.
So with just seven tournaments under his belt, including last week's World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, and facing the prospect that the PGA Championship might be his TOUR finale in 2011, Woods must take a different outlook. Long-range prospects are more important than immediate fulfillment.
"I haven't been (healthy) in a while, so that's something I'm very excited about finally, that I can come out here and just play and have fun again," Woods said. "As I said, I was always trying to block out pain. That's not a lot of fun to play through that. It's nice to have a kind of bounce in my step again and walk around these hills and not have to worry about hills."
Even playing through pain at the Masters, Woods was able to mount one of his patented charges, firing a 31 on the front nine on the way to a 67 that left him four strokes shy of his first come-from-behind victory at a major. He said he was "frustrated" because the injury prevented him from playing the way he knew he could.
"But now that I'm healthy, it's so much easier to be more patient because I feel good," Woods said. "I have way more energy because I'm not trying to block out pain and trying to ignore that. I can just go out there and just play golf.
"My feels are starting to come back. I've been away from the game for a while, but I'm starting to get the feel of hitting shots and how far the ball is going and just getting that more and more target awareness that just comes from just playing in tournament golf."
And there are no tournaments Woods likes better than golf's four crown jewels. He says he senses a different atmosphere this week at the Atlanta Athletic Club -- "I can feel the rush of a major championship again," he explained.
And Woods is still the big draw, even though he hasn't won a PGA TOUR event in 23 months. Woods' pre-tournament interview was the only one where press credentials were checked at the door. It was standing room only, too, with more than 15 television cameras and about 20 photographers ringing the outer limits of the room.
A week ago in Akron, Woods had returned to competition after the three-month layoff. He broke par once in four rounds, and he tied for 37th at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational -- a tournament he had won seven times previously. Still, Woods went away from Firestone Country Club "encouraged" and eager to see what happens at the PGA.
Woods is focused on the "W" he said, as is always the case whenever the former world No. 1 tees it up. At the same time, though, Woods needs a big finish at the Atlanta Athletic Club or else he'll be hitting the practice range in Florida, working with his swing guru Sean Foley, instead of competing on the PGA TOUR over the next six weeks.
That's because Woods ranks 129th in the FedExCup standings, and only the top 125 after next week's Wyndham Championship qualify for the first of the four events in the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCup. Based on last year's point totals, Woods likely needs to finish 14th or better on Sunday to stay inside the top 125 when the tournament in Greensboro is complete.
Woods won't be checking the projected FedExCup standings this week, though. The numbers he's concerned with are on his scorecard and at the top of the leaderboard. If he can contend, Woods knows the FedExCup will take care of itself -- and he might get to alter his definition of success.
"Just go out there and just play," Woods said. "This is a major, and this is the fun part."