'THANK GOD there is ibuprofen," Tiger Woods was saying, and a little later there was this, said with enough iron to make a club:

"I'm getting pretty tired of ice."

Yeah, well . . . Join the party, big guy. Now 35, Woods has a bum knee and bum heel and a run of bad luck that has separated him from his last major victory by 3 years. He also has this bit of unfinished business about being the greatest golfer of all time, once a foregone conclusion, now apparently a race against time and health and the influential effects of his own mind-boggling successes as a younger man.

That was the subtext of his media session yesterday at Aronimink Golf Club, which will again host the AT & T National, this time over Fourth of July weekend. By then, Woods hopes to not only be recovered from his latest injuries, but to have competed in the U.S. Open in mid-June.

Woods is not the man he was a decade ago, not the golfer either. By his own admission, he can no longer overpower a golf course as he once did, needing instead to outsmart it with the precise choice of clubs and a more precise placement of his shots.

That, his damaged body parts and his damaged image, have brought him back to the pack of humanity at a time in which the game is undergoing a surge of talent. As Woods said during a lengthy media Q & A session yesterday, "The Tour is deeper now, no doubt. The scores they're shooting, and the amount of guys that are winning for the first time - it's just become more difficult to win events.

"You look at the cut scores now, and there is generally between 70-plus guys within 10 shots every week," he said. "Before, that number was greater than that. It was all between 12 or 13 shots. Most guys are shooting under par and it's closer. It's pretty amazing when you get 70-plus guys 4-under-par or better. You can see it, it's getting deeper. It's just become more difficult to win and it's fun. It's a fun challenge for us as players."

Challenge enough that only two golfers have won more than once this year. Which begs this: Despite those scores and the influx of talent, would the old Tiger still be the boogeyman now that he was to Tour players then, hunting them down it seemed almost every Sunday, making them sweat, making them flinch?

And this: Can an aging Woods ever again command that aura? And if not, is he in danger of being viewed over time the way Larry Holmes is now, and the way Bernard Hopkins will be, the measure of their greatness diluted by the dearth of talent they achieved it against?

You know the argument by heart by now. Jack Nicklaus won his 18 major tournaments over a career that spanned into his late 40s, but he did so competing against a slew of legendary names, legendary tough-minded men. Wood's 14 majors came against a grouping often chided for a lack of that very toughness.

"Fourteen in 15 years is not too bad," Woods said. But if it stops there, is that achievement defining or, given the era, just trivia?

Woods gets this. It's why, he said, Nicklaus' mark, is "one of the things that drives me in this game. That 18 is our benchmark in our sport."

"No one's played the major championships better than Jack has . . . [But] I mean, it took Jack over what, 24 years, 23 years to do what he did? It takes time. I still have plenty of time . . . "

By Nicklaus' standards, yes, he does. He evoked the name of Raymond Floyd, winner of the U.S. Open at age 43 and a Tour winner at age 49. But those men didn't have the health issues that Woods has at age 35, not to mention the, um, self-made personal chaos that has marked the last 2 years of his life.

The irony of course is that it makes what's next even more compelling, even richer in storylines. Robot no more, Tiger Woods is more like us now than he ever has been. He needs that ibuprofen, endures that ice, grinds out his future, too.

"I feel that going forward I'm excited about playing major championships and playing golf again," he said. "I just want to be healthy and solid, and I feel like I can give it a go."

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