We've seen the smile more lately on "Access Hollywood" or the "Today Show" than walking up a fairway, but last week at Sherwood Country Club, it was different. The old Tiger Woods was back. Or the new Tiger Woods was back, playing like the old Tiger Woods.
This wasn't Tiger the rock star flashing those teeth when Jay Leno asked if he hurt his back -- traveling in his private jet -- in the Mile High Club. This was Tiger the golfer grinning back at all those who doubted when "close" was the word he used to describe a season spent in the wrong fairway.
Other than the Ryder Cup match where he was paired with Chris Riley, we haven't seen Tiger enjoy the game of golf all year. Each round was analyzed and Woods grew tired of defending himself. But just before flying to Japan in mid-November, Tiger had the epiphany he had been waiting for. It was similar to the experience of swinging an 8-iron on the range at Isleworth in 1999, picking up the cell phone, and calling Butch Harmon to say, "I've got it." This time he was in California and Hank Haney got the call.
Golf looked joyful again for Tiger Woods at the Target World Challenge. The stinger was back. He was seeing shots and playing them, no longer "Ranger Rick," fighting an inability to take his swing from the practice ground to the first tee. Ending the year with eight straight rounds in the 60s and two straight stroke-play wins surely changes the perspective of this year -- and next. As Tiger said on Sunday after closing out his own tournament, "Going back over my year now, it looks pretty good."
Yes, it does. The overview is three wins, three seconds, three thirds and a surge of momentum that should carry through to Kapalua for the season-opening Mercedes Championships. That window of opportunity for Vijay Singh and Ernie Els either just closed, or was significantly lowered. "It's a matter of getting the reps in and getting the reps in in competition," Woods explained. "I was trying to explain earlier this week, I was able to do it at home, I was able to do it with my buddies, I was able to do it on the range, I could do it at the range on tournament sites, but I never did it on the golf course in competition."
You can argue that the field at the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan was weak, but it probably wasn't any weaker (at the top) than the 84Lumber Classic. And you can say that only 16 players were at Sherwood, but a look at the leaderboard on USA and ABC over the past four days gave the Target more of a World Golf Championship feel than a Silly Season money grab. Tiger, Padraig Harrington, Colin Montgomerie, Jay Haas, Jim Furyk and Miguel Angel Jimenez were certainly there to win. At the beginning of the week so was Singh, but the putter let him down early and there was no catching up. The Target was a legitimate test and gives the Dunlop victory that much more credibility. For the first time all year he was able to put rounds together and then -- unlike the Tour Championship -- have the new swing hold up under pressure.
"I had to take baby steps and I did that all year," Woods said. "I was working in the right direction. Sometimes it might have been just three, four holes in one round that I played great, the way I know I can, and then the rest of it wasn't so good. Then eventually it became nine holes and 18, then 36 and 54, now a whole tournament. It's exciting."
It wasn't just the driver that Tiger fought this year. He shanked an 8-iron into the grandstands at the TPC and hooked a 2-iron into the corporate tents at the NEC. Both Harmon and Lanny Wadkins, the straight-shooting CBS analyst, called the 2004 season "Tiger's greatest" achievement considering the accuracy problems associated with a swing change. "You could have put Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els in the same spots, let them play a scramble, and they still wouldn't have produced the type of results Tiger did," said Wadkins.
Asked about that last Tuesday at Sherwood, Woods conceded that the year had been taxing on him, but grinding -- even with over $300 million in the bank, the knockout bride, and plans to raise a family -- will never be an issue. "I try as hard as I can each and every time I play," he said. "There were times when I had very little out there when I was playing this year, but I got through it because I wanted to. I think that's one of the things I've very proud of in my entire life."
So Tiger Woods is back, or, if looking at it big picture, he never really left. One thing we can say for sure: Married life has not ruined his career.