-- SAN DIEGO -- On Wednesday, prior to posting scores of 76-72 to miss the Farmers Insurance Open cut in his first full-field tournament in 17 months, Tiger Woods was asked about expectations.
This is nothing new. Woods is always asked about expectations.
The difference this time was his response.
"I'm looking forward to getting [to play] and trying to keep improving and getting my game better, more consistent," he explained. "Rounding into form and making my way to that first full week in April and getting everything ready for that."
These words were a stark departure from what he has been telling us for the past two decades. Finally, it seemed, Woods was lowering the bar and acknowledging the reality of the situation.
Even just last month, playing at the Hero World Challenge in his first start since three back surgeries, Woods hadn't yet acquiesced.
"I'm going to try to do the same thing I always do," he said then. "I'm entered in an event. I'm going to try to win this thing."
In recent years, even when Woods, 41, has struggled through injuries and swing changes and just plain poor play, the public's expectations for his performance level have always outsized any realistic level. Much of that stems from Woods himself, who rarely has suggested that anything less than winning is an acceptable outcome.
But there's another factor at play here too.
Sports fans have conditioned themselves to believe they can live in the past, that time stands still for legendary athletes. If current events are any indication, there's a reason for that.
This weekend's Australian Open men's tennis final will feature 35-year-old? Roger Federer against 30-year-old Rafael Nadal?for the ninth time in a Grand Slam title; they first won Grand Slam events 14 and 12 years ago, respectively.
On the women's side, the Williams sisters will also face off against each other in a Grand Slam final for the ninth time; Serena, 35, won her first major title in 1999, while Venus, 36, claimed her first one a year later.
The residual byproduct is that the public has become accustomed recently to extraordinary athletes doing extraordinary things late in their careers. Even Woods has taken notice of the tennis scenario.
"It is like old times seeing all four of them in the final like that," he said. "It's a testament to all of their wills, work ethic, because each and every one of them has been injured and been hurt and been sidelined of late too. So they've all gotten in together and all put it together at the same time, and it's like rolling back the clock. It's pretty cool. I'm a huge tennis fan. I know them all, so it is really, really cool for us as fans to see time being rolled back a little bit."
In other words, he understands what many golf fans want to see.
It makes less sense that a veteran would continue competing at the highest level in a full-contact sport such as football or a physically demanding one such as tennis than golf, which has seen its share of elder statesmen find success. Tom Watson nearly won a major at 59; Jack Nicklaus finished tied for sixth at one major at 58 and won another at 46; and? Henrik Stenson, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Darren Clarke have won majors post-40th birthday in this decade alone.
However, those stars from the other sports -- many of them one-name personalities like Tiger -- might be the ones who keep those embers of expectation continuously burning.
Don't misunderstand the message: Nothing Woods did at Torrey Pines this week should serve to create greater optimism nor pessimism in his game going forward. He did some things very well (his short game looked very smooth at times) and other things very poorly (he couldn't stop pushing the ball to the right off the tee). This was the equivalent of a rehab start -- or as Woods said Wednesday, just an opportunity to keep improving.
None of it will diminish expectations from those who haven't considered otherwise. None of it will keep sports fans who have witnessed the late-career brilliance of Brady and Federer and Nadal and the Williams sisters from believing that Woods can enjoy similar future success.
As for Woods himself, perhaps that pretournament claim of lowered expectations was just a glitch in the usual rhetoric. Maybe he still holds the same outsized expectations as so many fans have for him.
Directly after finishing his two rounds at 4-over par, with five birdies against seven bogeys and one double-bogey through 36 holes, he was asked about his goals for tournaments in three of the next four weeks.
Without hesitation, Woods retreated into that familiar tone again.
"Still the same," he said. "Still trying to win."