When Tiger Woods returns for the start of the 2011 golf season, the lights will be even brighter than they were for his return this year after his fall from grace, and this is going to give us the opportunity to see if Woods truly does belong up there with the transcendent athletes of our time, a distinction many may have prematurely accorded him.

All too often in sports the word great is thrown around too loosely, but this is not the case with Woods, who on Monday in Panama City, Fla., finalized his divorce from his wife, Elin Nordegren, the mother of his two children.

If he never plays a round of golf again, Woods is a Hall of Famer. He has 14 major championships on his resume, and if you ask people in golf circles who are capable of putting away their biases, most of them will tell you that with all due respect to Jack Nicklaus — owner of a record 18 major championships — Woods is the best golfer the world has ever produced.

But now he has the chance to take the next step, the opportunity to prove that he can overcome personal strife — all of it self-inflicted — and ascend a mountain where just being great doesn’t cut it.

Muhammad Ali is on that perch. Not long after he shouted to the world ‘No Viet Cong ever called me ni**er,” Ali had his boxing license suspended in 1967 and didn’t return to the ring until 1970.

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In his return, Joe Frazier beat him in the first of their three fights in 1970, and Ken Norton broke his jaw in 1973. But in 1974, Ali beat Frazier in their second bout and then, nine months later, at the age of 32 Ali defeated George Foreman to win the heavyweight title.

Michael Jordan resides there right alongside Ali.
Jordan’s father was slain in 1993 and shortly thereafter Jordan, dogged by gambling rumors, retired for the first time.

But Jordan, who had already won three championships in a row and in the process hung the heads of Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas on his wall as trophies, returned and went on to add another three-peat.

Let’s be honest. These days, sadly, who isn’t getting divorced? The latest statistics indicate that close to 50 percent of America’s marriages end shattered on the floor. Divorce is commonplace. What isn’t common at all is having the government label you a draft dodger, strip you of the opportunity to do what you do for three years only to rise from the ashes and, ultimately, as Ali did, do it better than anyone seven years later.

It’s not ordinary to find out that a pair of savages with nothing to lose lodged several bullets in your father’s skull while he innocently rested at a stop on the highway, but this is how James Jordan, Michael’s father, went out.

Earlier this month, after finishing his second full season without a major championship, The Las Vegas Hilton’s sports book promptly installed Tiger Woods as a 5-1 favorite to win the 2011 Masters Tournament.

This was after Woods tied for 23rd at the British Open and failed to shoot a round below 70 at the PGA Championship, and obviously after Woods provided the world with some of the most salacious headlines in the sports world.

We learned that not only does Woods have a voracious appetite for competition at the highest level on the greens, but that he also has a ravenous appetite for blondes and brunettes as well.

As a result the narrative on Woods is that he has plummeted hard — hit rock bottom. Tiger’s in a slump on the golf course and at the bank, where this year he’s pulling down $22 million [begin italics] less [end italics] than he did last year. The $90 million he’ll pocket this year from endorsements alone is paltry when compared to the $128 million he made two years ago.

But apparently the bookies, who do a better job predicting the outcome of sporting events than anybody, think Woods is headed for a recovery.

I am not counting him out, but I will be watching with more intrigue than ever before. Eventually he has to compartmentalize his mental baggage and resuscitate his game, because that is what the legends he so often hears his name mentioned in the same sentence with have done.
Donnie McClurkin sings it best. We fall down, but we get up.

Can Tiger Woods do the same?