Confidence runs high for Tiger Woods

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The question had something to do with a hockey helmet he once signed, but Tiger Woods figured out a way to get a laugh.

Safe to say he's put his signature on a few items, so he couldn't remember anything about the said piece of memorabilia. But that came in handy when it was time to talk about his golf swing.

"I'm swinging the club well enough that you don't need to walk out there with hockey helmets on," he said.

When Woods is self-deprecating, it typically suggests an air of confidence.

Not one to poke fun at himself, Woods can chuckle at some of the foul balls he has hit over the recent months and years, especially now that he feels good about where his game is going.

The Chevron World Challenge, which begins Thursday at Sherwood Country Club, is yet another public opportunity for Woods to show that his game is coming around.

We saw it at the Australian Open, where he finished third, two strokes out of a playoff, despite blowing a lead with a third-round 75. He backed it up with his performance at the Presidents Cup, where his 2-3 record was not indicative of his solid play.

Hitting 17 of 18 greens Saturday despite poor weather and wind followed by making six birdies in 15 holes of Sunday singles was another indication that the golf ball is going where he is aiming.

"I got better every day, and that part was fun," Woods said after Wednesday's pro-am. "Normally any player who makes swing changes, you get exposed in the wind. When the wind's howling ... it's going to show up.

"I felt very comfortable in that wind. Last year at Dubai [in February], I felt I should have won the golf tournament. A right-to-left wind cost me eight shots on certain holes, and I didn't have the ability to maneuver the ball left to right at the time. So the wind exposed me there, which was good.

"Playing in Oz [Australia] for two weeks, it was fantastic. I hit all shapes, all trajectories, and if you look at the rounds, I hit most of my shots pin high. That's an indication if the wind's blowing hard, that I'm really controlling my trajectory."

This is technical stuff to be sure, but Woods now talks with an air of conviction, suggesting that the changes he made to his golf swing with coach Sean Foley are taking hold.

Getting them to work in a competitive environment had been the big hurdle for Woods, and he finally saw some success at the Australian Open and again at the Presidents Cup.

To suggest that Woods is "back" is premature, and most will never believe it until he wins again. It now has been more than two years since his last victory. A playoff loss a year ago at the Chevron was a false alarm, as Woods was far from in control of his swing.

A tie for fourth at the Masters turned out to be another tease, as Woods suffered injuries that caused him to miss two major championships this summer. The Chevron is still just his fifth stroke-play event since his return in August.

And then he'll take a seven-week break before playing his first tournament of 2012 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, an event on the European Tour in late January. After that, Woods said, his schedule is undetermined, the thought being he will play somewhere -- Pebble Beach? Riviera? -- before the WGC-Accenture Match Play.

For now, he has that strong performance in Australia to build on, including holding the second-round lead at the Open -- the first time he held a solo lead since last year's Chevron.

Woods said his friend Notah Begay, who was in town to play in the pro-am, asked him what it was like to be in the lead again.

"I told him I felt nothing," Woods said. "And he said, 'Good, because you're not supposed to. You're supposed to be there. It's supposed to be normal.' I said, 'Yeah, I know.'

"So [at the Aussie Open], I felt the same way as I did on Friday and Thursday. And on Sunday, I felt the same way I did the first three days, and that's a good sign. I feel very comfortable being up there."

The Chevron is another step in the process, although it probably should not be used as a true gauge -- either way. A victory does not mean he'll win more frequently next year, just as a lackluster finish should not suggest doom.

But it should offer up a good test nonetheless. Although the field is just 18 players, everyone in the field is ranked ahead of Woods, who is now 52nd in the world.

And a cold front that is expected to bring wind gusts beyond 40 mph is headed this way Thursday and into Friday.

"I'm excited about playing that wind," Woods said. "Here in these canyons, it can do anything. If the wind is projected the way it's supposed to be ... it'll be tough."

Given where his game is right now, you get the feeling Woods welcomes the idea, relishes the test -- and is OK with fans who might show up wearing hard hats anyway.

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