The first sign that something was different about Tiger Woods came during the pro-am at the Chevron Wold Challenge about a month ago.
After getting the yardage to the green on the par-5 13th hole -- 282 yards -- he pulled a 3-wood from his bag and asked a small group standing behind him, “Can I get there with this?”
“Eventually,” came one reply.
Woods smiled, tried to disguise a friendly gesture by scratching the side of his leg, then set up over the shot and drilled it. The ball never left the flag, cleared the bunker and settled some 30 feet behind the green.
His caddie, Steve Williams, looked on with a straight face. Shots like that have been rare over the past year.
Several more followed. When it was suggested toward the end of his round that Woods was playing his best on Wednesday, Williams again answered solemnly, “He’s done a lot of work since Australia.”
It was like that all week at the Chevron World Challenge -- until Sunday, when it mattered.
Equipped with a four-shot lead, Woods missed three putts inside 6 feet and his lead narrowed to one. Then, he fell into some old swing habits under the pressure of contending on the back nine. It had been one year and 20 days since he felt those emotions, and that’s when he was susceptible to crumbling.
Woods found his game at the end, but it didn’t matter. Even after hitting an 8-iron as pure as can be to inside 3 feet for an easy birdie, Graeme McDowell denied him victory with a stunning end to a great year -- McDowell not only holed a 20-foot birdie putt to force a playoff, he then made a similar putt on the first extra hole to win.
For McDowell, everything is going his way -- a feeling Woods used to know well.
He won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He was the hero of the Ryder Cup for winning the final match for Europe. And he became the first player to beat Woods when trailing by at least three shots going into the final round.
No one else in 24 attempts had ever managed to do that.
“Obviously I didn’t know the stat,” McDowell said, moving into understatement mode. “But I was aware that he’s a pretty good player and a pretty damn good closer. So yeah, to be the guy to break that run is pretty special. I’m sure he’s disappointed. I’m definitely a guy who says that golf needs Tiger Woods, and we need him back winning tournaments.
“He’ll be back winning tournaments very soon.”
If he looked like the Woods of old, he sure didn’t sound like it moments after shaking McDowell’s hand on the 18th green.
“It was a great week, even though I didn’t win,” Woods said. “I’m proud of today, even though I lost.”
That sounded like something from the mouth of Phil Mickelson, the master of keeping golf in perspective. Woods was back to his old self a short time later when he got on Twitter and typed in, “Really hate losing, Graeme did what he needed to do to win and I didn’t.”
The Chevron World Challenge, for most players, marked the end of a long year.
For Woods, it seemed like the start of a new year.
Getting through Thanksgiving, when all of his personal troubles began in 2009, was a big deal for no other reason than he passed an important mile marker on the calendar.
Woods was asked the last time he was really looking forward to a tournament because of how he was playing, and he again mentioned the Monday of the Ryder Cup, when he won his singles match against Francesco Molinari by playing the last seven holes in 7 under.
There have been more hiccups since Celtic Manor, and perhaps more are to come in 2011.
Woods only began working with swing coach Sean Foley about four months ago, and Williams is amazed how quickly he is picking up on the changes. Woods sounded as though he expected problems with his swing under the pressure of a back nine in the final group at Chevron.
“I lost my swing in the middle part of the round, and pieced it back together again,” he said. “I was proud of that. I was very committed coming in, and hit some really, really good shots, which was good. If anything, I thought that’s when there might be a breakdown, but I was very pleased that I was able to put that back together then.
“Unfortunately, during the middle part of the round, I lost all those shots,” he said. “And Graeme was playing really well.”
McDowell saw enough to believe that better days are coming soon. The question is whether the aura of intimidation that Woods held for so long will return, too.
“There’s something a bit special about his golf game,” McDowell said, “and I fully expect that mystique to return as the golf clubs start doing the talking again.”
The clubs sound louder than a whisper, but not quite a shout, as Woods turned 35 in late December and is in the midst of the longest drought of his career. He could not remember the last time he went an entire year without winning.
“It’s been a while,” he said.
Woods most likely will return to action at Torrey Pines the last week of January for the Farmers Insurance Open, a tournament he has won six times. That gives him about a month to continue rehearsing a new swing, remembering what it was like to win.
The last time he failed to win at Torrey Pines was in 2004. Woods didn’t play in 2009 while recovering from knee surgery, and last year because he was in a Mississippi clinic.
Does he still remember how to get to Torrey Pines? Woods laughed and kept walking toward the parking lot.