By Steve DiMeglio, USA TODAY
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - Take a stand.
As Tiger Woods makes his 2012 PGA Tour debut Thursday in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, golf's unquestioned leading man and top draw once again is at the epicenter of the game's buzz, the central figure in a debate roiling in golf circles, in cyberspace and 19th holes across the land.
On one side are those who think Woods will, after a two-year hiatus, reclaim his seat at the top of the game from where he ruled for more than a decade.
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On the other side are those who deem the former No. 1's best days are behind him, that the scandal which broke in late 2009 has left irreversible harm and sent him into an abyss in which he will not return.
The debate is taking place on the PGA Tour, too.
"I honestly don't think there is a reason why he won't get back to No. 1 and being the best again," says Keegan Bradley, reigning PGA Championship winner and 2011 PGA Tour rookie of the year. "He's going to find a way."
Others aren't so sure..
"I don't know if he will rule the roost anymore," Dustin Johnson says. "He has struggled, but he's been injured. And he's had a few incidents that have thrown him for a loop. But I think he has everything back on track. He will be a force, I'm sure. He is one guy you are going to have to beat out here.
"But there are a lot of other guys you're going to have to beat, as well."
Here are nine reasons why Woods will return to his dominating ways. And nine reasons why he wouldn't.
1. Insult to injuries
PRO: "I've been able to train again," Woods says. "Rehabbing and training are two totally different scenarios. I've been rehabbing pretty much the entire last couple of years. Now I'm healthy enough to train without issue. My body's feeling explosive again. ... I can literally train all day now."
CON: His left knee. Dating to 1994, when he had two benign tumors removed and scar tissues repaired, he's had four operations on his knee, including a major reconstruction in 2008 after he won the U.S. Open. "That's the only worry," CBS golf analyst David Feherty says. " For a right-handed player, there is probably no such worse problem you can have. Your frame has to absorb that shock of the swing, and all the energy dissipates into the left knee area."
2. History of winning
PRO: The guy knows how to win - 83 worldwide wins, 71 PGA Tour victories, 14 major championships, three U.S. Amateurs. "There is no current player that has the portfolio of good memories, of good shots, and of good comebacks and good victories," three-time PGA Tour winner Camilo Villegas says. " It's this simple - if you stand on the first tee and he's won about 100 times around the world and you've won two or three, who do you think has the advantage?"
CON: The Indianapolis Colts and Washington Wizards have both won more frequently in the last couple of years than Tiger. Woods hasn't won an official event since the 2009 Australian Masters, two weeks before scandal turned his world on end. And he hasn't won a PGA Tour event since the 2009 BMW Championship.
3. What of the putter?
PRO: Woods, one of the best putters of all time, showed some of his old magic when he closed with two birdies - from 15 and 6 feet - on the final two holes to beat 2007 Masters champ Zach Johnson by one shot to win the unofficial Chevron World Challenge in December.
CON: He missed two bunnies during his electrifying final-round charge in the 2011 Masters - a 3-footer for par on the 12th and a 4-footer for eagle on the 15th. In 2008 and 2009, he ranked first and fourth, respectively, on the Tour in putting average inside 5 feet. In 2010 and 2011, he ranked 23rd and 62nd. "He has to recapture that me-against-the-world attitude and that he's the best putter alive," CBS golf analyst Peter Kostis says. " He lost that over the last couple of years."
4. Fear factor
PRO: The daunting red shirt is back in contention on Sundays - along with massive galleries following in lockstep that can still unnerve most players. In his last three stroke-play events, he's finished no worse than third, and he's 55-9 when he's had at least a share of the lead going into the final round.
CON: A mop of hair named Robert Rock and his No. 117 ranking stared him down in the final round and won the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship last month - reinforcing arguments that Woods' intimidating aura is no longer an issue. "A lot of guys who have tons of talent have seen him struggle," 2010 PGA Tour rookie of the year Rickie Fowler says. "The fear factor is no longer the same."
5. Pumping irony
PRO: Woods is making regular trips to the weight room again. "When I came out here I was the only guy in the gym," he said.
CON: His rivals followed him into the gym and his edge in physical conditioning is no longer a measurable advantage. As well, Woods made golf cool back in the '90s and more athletic athletes - think Dustin Johnson, Gary Woodland and Martin Kaymer- have shunned other sports and turned to golf.
6. Swing time
PRO: Woods is finding his groove with his new swing under the tutelage of Sean Foley, and his misses aren't as bad as they were in the past two years. "His control of his golf ball was as good as I've seen it," world No. 1 Luke Donald said after the first round in Abu Dhabi. "He was shaping it both ways, and so that's always a daunting sign for us."
CON: Woods is still producing misses - he hit just two fairways in the final round at Abu Dhabi. And he's an obsessive tinkerer who is now with his third swing coach since turning professional. Can too much calibration be destructive?
7. What you want?
PRO: Tiger is hungry again. "He's got a lot to prove again," world No. 20 Justin Rose says. "There's some revenge there. A lot has been written, a lot has been said. When you've achieved so much and you go through bad times, you have to ask yourself how much you want it. I think he really wants it back."
CON: You have to ask yourself how much longer Woods can want it. Competition drives him but he's been under the glare of the spotlight and in the middle of the game's largest galleries for more than 15 years.
8. Deep end of the talent pool
PRO: Who's going to stop him? Woods has dominated before, having won at least five Tour titles in a single season eight times, including a personal-best nine in 2000. And no one was as authoritative during his slump. Last year, no one won more than two tournaments on the PGA Tour.
CON: Since Woods last won on Tour, 31 players have won their first tournaments, a nod to the growing talent pool. Of those 31 first-timers, 14 were international players, a nod to the game's talent pool reaching all seven seas.
9. Chasing Saint Nicklaus
PRO: The carrot that is Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors still energizes Woods, who has been stuck on 14 since winning the 2008 U.S. Open. "I think Tiger will be the dominant player again, in part, because Jack is still out there," Feherty says. "Tiger wants 19. People have short memories. He hasn't played well for two years and yet he finished fourth twice in the Masters and fourth in a U.S. Open and he didn't have his game. If he plays well, he wins, period. I know we have all the great young players coming up, and golf looks really healthy, but those youngsters haven't seen Tiger play well. When they do, look out."
CON: The pressure will mount if Woods gets closer to Nicklaus.