None of the top 11 golfers in the world could have outdrawn No. 12, Mr. Eldrick Woods, for this peculiar news conference Tuesday morning at Aronimink Golf Club.

It was peculiar because an event designed to promote the AT&T National here turned quickly into a Q&A session about Woods' health and the ramifications for next month's U.S. Open. There was one question about Aronimink's fitness for hosting a major tournament and one about the charitable foundation that benefits from the National.

Everything else was about Woods' status, his state of mind, and his ability to rebound and play golf again.

"It is kind of about golf," Woods said of the interrogation about his injured left leg. "When can I get back in there and play again?"

Tiger still looks and sounds like Tiger, which may be part of his problem as he struggles to play golf again like Tiger. The face has barely changed since Woods was winning his first major title at age 21. You look at him, and you can't imagine why his game hasn't been the same for nearly two years now.

Listen to him, though, and the mystery evaporates. The boyish face is the same, but the body is falling to pieces. Woods has been wearing a special boot to ease pressure on his left Achilles tendon, walking on crutches to take weight off his balky left knee. Combined, the measures lessen the pain in his back.

It was hard not to think about Phillies second baseman Chase Utley. Woods played a physical, aggressive style of golf that probably explains the wear and tear on his legs and back. Like Utley, he played hurt.

"You play through these things," Woods said. "There's a difference between being in pain and being injured. Those are two totally different things. You can handle pain, but being injured is a totally different deal."

Well, yes and no. Pain is the body's way of telling you something is wrong. Ignoring that message - as Woods and Utley certainly did for years - can lead to an injury serious enough to shut the body down. The question facing both men is whether there is still time to return to an elite level of play, or whether they pushed too hard for too long.

Listen to Woods and it sinks in. He isn't simply in a postscandal slump from which he could break out any time and return to his dominant form. He is in sharp physical decline and likely to be battling these chronic problems for the rest of his career.

"As you get older, you have to do things differently," Woods said. "Your body doesn't allow you to do these things. You have to be smart. . . . I used to run four to six miles before I played. I don't do that anymore."

It was sobering to hear Woods talk about himself, and his game, as if he were in the twilight of his career - the Tiger in Winter, fending off younger challengers with his wits and experience.

"I can't hit the ball, in relative terms, as far as I used to compared to other Tour players," Woods said. "There are guys who hit it much further than I do. It's a different ball game. Some guys hit wedges from 150 [yards] in. When I came on the Tour, everyone used an 8-iron from 150 in. But you still have to be able to score."

Woods went on to talk about guys such as Jay Haas and Raymond Floyd, who had late-career success by playing a smarter game. It was like listening to Stephen Strasburg, the hard-throwing kid from the Washington Nationals, compare his evolving game to Jamie Moyer's.

"They learned to pick apart a golf course," Woods said. "I still have length to which I can get to par-5s, but still it's learning how to maneuver a golf ball around the golf course."

Woods said pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record 18 major championships remains "one of the things that drives me in this game." When Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open, his 14th major, at age 32, it seemed inevitable he would eclipse Nicklaus. Indeed, Nicklaus won his 14th in 1975, when he was the same age Woods is now. It took him 11 years to win those final four, culminating in the 1986 Masters, at age 46.

"I still have plenty of time," Woods said.

Time, yes. Game? Health? Those interwoven questions will frame the rest of his career. Can Woods' leg stay strong long enough for him to get his game sharp enough to win again? Will he return to consistency or show mere flashes of his former game?

He may be the No. 12 ranked golfer in the world, but until further notice, he is still Tiger Woods.

Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2864, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at go.philly.com/philabuster and his columns at go.philly.com/philsheridan