THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. - Tiger Woods was atop the leaderboard going into the weekend and talking about how excited he was that everything was starting to come together. And then it all fell apart.
This was Saturday at Sherwood.
It looked no different from any other tournament this year.
Woods popped up a 3-wood into a bunker some 60 yards from the green on the first hole, then angrily flung his sand wedge at the bag when he came up well short of the pin. He got suckered into going at the flag on the par-3 third and found the bunker, taking two shots to get out. Woods slammed his club into the side of the hill.
Silly season, huh?
Three over par after four holes, Woods recovered to shoot 69 and finish only two shots behind. As he worked with Hank Haney on the practice green into the late afternoon, Steve Williams watched from the side.
"I could have told you he would start out like this," Williams said.
Was he uncomfortable on the range that morning?
The caddie hurriedly shook his head.
"I can read this guy like a book," Williams said. "He knows this is the best he has felt about his game in a long, long time. And he can't get to the first tee fast enough. He's just got to settle down and let the round come to him."
That's what Woods did the next day. He couldn't make a putt and still shot 66 to win the Target World Challenge by two shots, giving him consecutive stroke-play victories for the first time since the spring of 2001.
OK, one of those was in Japan (Dunlop Phoenix), and hardly anyone was paying attention.
The other was in the silly season, and he only had to beat 15 other guys.
Still, there was plenty of evidence that Woods is finally on the fast track to where he was the previous five years, even if the car he is driving has a different chassis.
Maybe the best proof was a willingness to speak more openly about his game - when and why he changed his swing; the epiphany he had on the range last month when it all made sense; having Haney come out to the Target World Challenge; and conceding, finally, that the changes were more than just a refinement.
"Very minor. They're not drastic changes," Woods had said in May at the Memorial.
After winning at Sherwood, he said the amount of work was equal to want he went through in 1998.
"It's a different philosophy, one that was different to me, changes that I've never done before," he said of his work with Haney. "Probably '98 was more difficult, but this one I got a lot more badgering from you guys."
Woods said he decided to undergo changes after winning the Match Play Championship in February, his only PGA Tour victory of the year. Such is the nature of that format that had it been a stroke-play tournament, Woods probably would have finished out of the top 10.
"Even though I won the tournament, I knew I wasn't going to do it for the rest of the year, so I had to start changing a few things," he said.
The rest of the year was a series of "baby steps" that cost him some of his mystique. He had gone five years without losing a 36-hole lead, and did it twice on consecutive weekends in May. He ended his PGA Tour season by failing to win with at least a share of the 54-hole lead for the first time in four years.
But he saw the Tour Championship as a positive, too, especially his middle rounds of 64-65 that told him he was closer than ever - even if no one believed him.
"I got ribbed a lot," Woods said, when asked about his 2004 mantra ("I'm close"). "But they weren't privy to being at home and watching me practice. I just couldn't quite take it to the golf course."
Woods was annoyed - and still is - at having to defend himself for a season that most other players wouldn't mind having. Despite only one PGA Tour victory and no majors, he finished out of the top 10 only five times in 19 starts. Considering where he hit the ball, he had no business contending in half of them.
The media can't be faulted for pestering him.
The prevailing question was why anyone would change a swing that brought him close to perfection in 2000, with three straight majors, nine PGA Tour victories and his final 47 rounds at par or better.
What if Woods were a journalist?
"I would have looked at the faults, and tried to understand... why I changed," he said. "Even though I had a great run, what was I still doing wrong in my golf swing?"
He credited Jaime Diaz of Golf Digest for "trying to figure it out," and Diaz sheds plenty of light in the January edition of the magazine. He writes that Woods is working less on matching the speed of his upper and lower body, and more on getting his backswing and downswing on the same plane.
Woods talked at the Tour Championship about wanting to get better, and the risks involved.
What he told Diaz was more revealing.
"Only two players have ever truly owned their swings - Moe Norman and Ben Hogan," Woods said. "I want to own mine. That's where the satisfaction comes from."
The other satisfaction might come in having the last laugh.
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