Tiger Woods finishes 2012 strong

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Tiger Woods didn't win his own golf tournament, didn't make a Sunday charge, never really contended after Friday afternoon. He was in the mix, yet he wasn't, and he undoubtedly left Sherwood Country Club a bit miffed about a relatively ordinary performance.

But in the big picture of all the seemingly minor details that turn into big ones when it comes to Woods, specifically all the scrutiny that his game endures, the result in the World Challenge presented by Northwestern Mutual is of little consequence as a 37th birthday looms later this month.

Unless Woods shot 62 every day or had a difficult time breaking 80, what occurred at this 18-player exhibition wasn't going to have much impact for him. At least not this time. Woods shot a final-round 71 and ended up tied for fourth, 8 strokes behind winner Graeme McDowell.

It was far from the riveting duel he had with McDowell two years ago, or the back-and-forth Woods had with Zach Johnson last year as Tiger posted his first victory anywhere in the world in more than two years.

But this time, the stakes were different. Woods made it clear that he viewed this tournament as the end to the 2012 season, and he will take an extended break before getting ready for his first event of 2013. Woods is unlikely to pick up a club again before the holidays, unless it is to knock balls around with his son Charlie.

Woods had not played for a month prior to this week and won't play again officially until the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in six weeks. Although not yet official, Woods is expected to make his U.S. debut a week after Abu Dhabi at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.

Unlike a year ago, when a victory here was deemed as a huge step in his return to prominence, a win this time would not have carried the same weight. Woods had proved already throughout the course of 2012 that he was back among the elite in the game.

His win at Sherwood last year, although unofficial, was his first since November 2009, and the world ranking points helped him jump from just inside the top 50 to 21st. He added three more official victories on the PGA Tour at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Memorial Tournament and AT&T National. He ends his 2012 season ranked No. 3 in the world behind Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald.

"I'm very excited because last year at this point in time I was still not quite where I wanted to be physically," Woods said. "This year has been fantastic in that regard. I've felt good. I've played a full schedule for the first time in a very long time, and just very pleased overall with what I've done with my game.

"At the outset of the year, I didn't really putt well. Towards the end of the year I really started putting well. My short game has really come around. [I] was able to spend less time beating golf balls and more time on my short game.

"There's always things we need to work on, and this offseason we have a list of things we want to get done, and that'll start probably [in] a couple of weeks. Shut it down for a little bit and then start gearing up again."

Woods said his list is considerably shorter than it was a year ago, but if his week at Sherwood showed anything, it was his struggles with the short irons. That would clearly seem to be a point of emphasis in the offseason.

Throughout the 2012 season, it was clear that was the area that has yet to come around.

While Woods was second on the PGA Tour in scoring average at 68.904, sixth in total driving and 34th in strokes gained putting, his ability to hit shots close in the so-called "scoring" zone kept him from doing better.

From 75 to 100 yards, his proximity to the pin ranked 86th on the PGA Tour. He was 78th from 100 to 125 yards and 67th from 125 to 150 yards.

From each of those distances, Woods could do no better than an average of 17 feet from the hole. That means he didn't give himself enough truly makeable birdie opportunities, which also leads to putting statistics that were not as solid as he would like.

Another area of concern is the par-5s. When Woods dominates them as he did in days of old, he will always be in contention. Sherwood Country Club has five par-5s, and he did eagle the 16th after rocking a 3-wood to 10 feet from 255 yards Sunday. But on Saturday, he failed to birdie any of the par-5s, which essentially cost him a shot at winning the tournament.

And yet, that would seemingly be easier to correct than other aspects of his game. Woods will never be the most accurate driver, but his 63 percent rate of hitting fairways this year was just the second time since 2007 that he's been above 60 percent. And his 67 percent greens hit in regulation was right at the level he was at in 2009, when he won six times on the PGA Tour.

"I've already made the big changes," Woods said. "They're already in. It's the little tweaks here and there. That's where the old pattern still comes in every now and again, and just trying to get out of that. But I'm excited about my short game coming back. I'm chipping and putting well again."

How Woods builds into 2013 will be fascinating to watch. He turns 37 on Dec. 30, and he'll be reminded again that he hasn't won a major championship since 2008.

But for the first time since the start of the 2009 season, he will enter a golf calendar year without the doubts that have dogged him over the past 36 months, certainly without the injury concerns that hampered him.

His golf swing and all the drama that entails will never go away, but it will be fascinating to watch all of it unfold. He immediately gets to go against McIlroy in his first tournament of the year, in the Middle East, and from there it won't be long before thoughts of the Masters and the year's first major championship abound.