SAN FRANCISCO -- Tiger Woods, in many ways, launches the third chapter of his career Thursday in Northern California.
Woods transformed golf in Chapter 1, steaming into historic territory. He seemed destined to chase down Sam Snead's career record for PGA Tour victories (82) and, more important, Jack Nicklaus' standard for professional majors (18).
Then, in Chapter 2, Woods stalled. His personal life imploded, his body creaked and his game plunged into startling mediocrity. If he doesn't win this week's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, he will reach 29 months without an official tour victory. He hasn't won a major championship in nearly four years.
And now, Chapter 3 begins: Woods, at age 36, brings a reshaped swing and sound health into his first PGA Tour start of the year. And the most compelling, wide-angle questions: How will he play this season and where will he ultimately land among the all-time greats?
Woods will not dominate the way he once did, given the fresh parade of fearless players now on the scene. But his strong play recently -- including a win in the 18-man Chevron World Challenge in December and a tie for third at the European Tour event in Abu Dhabi that ended Jan. 29 -- suggests Woods will win again soon.
So does the track record of Woods' colleagues in the historic domain. He ranks third on the all-time list with 71 tour wins. Among the other players in the top five -- Snead, Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer -- all four won at least 14 times after turning 36. If history is our guide, this bodes well for Tiger.
Woods ranks second on the list of major winners, with 14. Among the other players in the top six -- Nicklaus, Walter Hagen, Hogan, Gary Player and Tom Watson -- only one (Hogan) won at least five majors after turning 36. That's what Woods needs to surpass Nicklaus.
If history is our guide, this doesn't bode so well for Tiger.
To augment this statistical glance, the San Francisco Chronicle last week contacted three Hall of Famers, Nicklaus, Player and Ben Crenshaw. They all agreed Woods will resume winning before long, throughout his late 30s and into his early 40s.
"It actually should be easier at that point, as long as you're physically fit," Nicklaus said Friday. "You should be able to maintain your focus better as you get older. The prime of your career usually comes from 30 to 35, but that prime can be extended with good health, good focus and a goal. And I think Tiger has a goal."
But can Woods return to No. 1 in the world rankings, once his perpetual residence and now a distant rumor? He arrives at Pebble Beach at No. 17 and rising. Player flatly predicted Woods will return to No. 1 -- and also will break Nicklaus' record.
"He's still the most talented player in the world," Player said, "but there are a number of excellent players who are going to do their best to keep him out of the No. 1 spot. It will not be an easy task."
For all the talk about Woods' swing changes, his chances of returning to No. 1 and passing Nicklaus inevitably come back to putting. That's where Woods separated himself from the pack in Chapter 1 of his career, making virtually every putt he needed.
That was not the case during Chapter 2.
This raises an intriguing topic for conversation, because many people in golf circles contend that putting -- even more than the full swing -- deteriorates with age. It becomes harder to sustain concentration over four days, or so the logic goes.
Television analyst Johnny Miller has spoken many times about a certain span of productive putting, and Woods' struggles the past two years made it look as if he had completed his span.
"I think generally Johnny's correct on that," said Crenshaw, a two-time Masters champion and one of the best putters ever. "From my time on tour, it seemed when a player reaches about 35 years old ... it's going to start leveling off. No question, it's a curious thing."
But if Tiger's putts start going down again, Snead and Nicklaus better look in their mythical rearview mirrors. Woods still has plenty of time to catch them.