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Tiger Woods looks solid post-Australia

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The criticism came from all corners of the golf world, with cries of cronyism, PGA Tour meddling and network television arm-twisting among the theories why Tiger Woods got a highly controversial captain's pick for the Presidents Cup from Fred Couples.

Among those who were critical was Greg Norman, the captain of the International squad, who said several weeks ago that Woods was undeserving, that PGA Championship and 2011 two-time winner Keegan Bradley should have been at Royal Melbourne in his place.

We'll never know how Bradley might have fared, and he certainly made a compelling argument to be picked -- especially when you consider he had just a year to earn qualifying points and Woods spent most of the summer injured.

But in the end, the United States easily won the Presidents Cup 19-15, and Woods -- as it turned out -- delivered the clinching point. And never one to forget a slight, Woods couldn't help but mention Norman afterward.

"I'm thankful that he picked me,'' Woods said of Couples. "Greg is probably not happy about it after I closed out the Cup today. … I'm thankful that Freddie believed in me to be a part of this team.''

Woods was not the star of the team, not even close. Jim Furyk won all five of his matches, Hunter Mahan four. Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson, David Toms and Webb Simpson were each victorious three times. Woods went 2-3.

But the way Woods played Saturday afternoon in defeat -- hitting 17 of 18 greens in treacherous conditions -- and again Sunday in his 4 and 3 singles victory over Aaron Baddeley, were the best signs yet that his game is turning around.

Woods made six birdies and a bogey in 15 holes against Baddeley and never trailed. He finally started to make some putts after getting a tip from Steve Stricker that helped him release the club properly. And Woods' play was seemingly a vindication for Couples -- who nonetheless never felt he needed it.

"I feel like I know what I'm doing,'' Couples said. "When I picked Tiger a month and a half early, there was a reason for it. He worked really, really hard on his game. When a guy looks at you and says don't worry about me …

"I felt like I was picking the greatest player I've ever seen play. I've never seen anyone play like Tiger. Today he played like the Tiger of old.''

It clearly has been a successful trip Down Under for Woods. Following a series of outings and exhibitions in Asia and Australia, Woods finished third last week at the Australian Open, missing a playoff by 2 shots after shooting a third-round 75.

Although he lost his first two matches at the Presidents Cup, he played decently, running into strong opponents. His 1-up loss on Saturday with partner Dustin Johnson to the Korean team of K.T. Kim and Y.E. Yang brought no shame.

"His iron play was phenomenal just like last week and he continued that,'' said caddie Joe LaCava. "He didn't hit the driver a lot, but it was really good when he had to. He was better than last week.

"He did make a lot of putts [Sunday]. He had a lot of 8- or 10-footers that were tough and he had good speed and every putt went right in the middle. But it doesn't take a genius to figure out he's hitting a lot of good shots.''

Woods will spend this holiday week with his children, then play his last tournament of 2011 at the event that benefits his foundation, the Chevron World Challenge.

After that, it'll be another seven weeks before he competes again, as he is schedule to begin the 2012 season at the European Tour's Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in late January.

"That's the bad thing,'' LaCava said. "I wish we were at the meat of the schedule right now. I wish we were just getting going. I wish it was February right now. But it's not and it is what it is.''

An important disclaimer: There was a good deal of optimism a year ago after Woods went 3-1 at the Ryder Cup, including an impressive singles victory over Francesco Molinari. He later finished second at the Chevron.

That success did not carry over. But he's also had that much more time to work with coach Sean Foley.

"He hasn't played that much in a couple of years,'' LaCava said. "We don't want to get ahead of ourselves, but yes, is he playing well and is he hitting it solid? Of course. I think he's excited. He's seeing good shots and he's hitting it right where he's looking and he's got that little stinger [shot] back.''

Said Woods: "I'm very pleased with the progress I've made with Sean and it's finally paying off under pressure. It held up nicely last week at the Open and it held up nicely this week.''

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.