THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. --- The first sign that something was different about Tiger Woods came during the pro-am.
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 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 about 30 feet behind the green.
His caddie, Steve Williams, looked on with a straight face. Shots like that have been rare this year.
Several more followed. When it was suggested toward the end of his round that Woods was playing his best Wednesday, Williams 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. With a four-shot lead, Woods missed three putts inside six 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 has 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 three feet for an easy birdie, Graeme McDowell denied him a victory with a stunning end to a great year.
If Tiger 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.
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.
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."
Woods most likely will return at Torrey Pines the last week of January for the Farmers Insurance Open, a tournament he has won six times. That gives him almost two months to continue rehearsing a new swing, remembering what it was like to win.