THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Certainly, it wasn’t like the salad days of majors and walkovers that ushered in this century, but in a small way it felt like the good old days.
Though there was plenty of golf still on the course, fans were seen headed for the gates because Tiger Woods was done for the day. To them, the show was over.
OK, first disclaimer: “Plenty of golf still on the course” means just six players were still touring the last few holes at Sherwood Country Club, but hey, that’s a third of the field here at the Chevron World Challenge.
Oh, and a second disclaimer: We recognize that it’s a silly-seson event, meaningless perhaps for 17 of the 18 who are assembled here, but not for Woods. To him, this tournament carries great significance – not just because for the first time he’s able to play for his Chevron sponsors and not just because the charitable funds benefit his Tiger Woods Foundation. No, the importance of his first-round 65 that provided a one-stroke lead over that likeable entry from Northern Ireland, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, rests within the mind.
“A tournament like this at the very end of the year, if you play well, it does give you a shot of confidence,” Woods said after a performance that incuded 16 greens and birdies on each of the five par 5s.
Now there was a time when Woods overflowed with confidence – like Gates with cash or Trump with ego. Then came . . . well, Thanksgiving 2009 and a year’s worth of fallout that touched all parts of his life. While he worked hard to keep much of the wounds private, there was nothing he could do about the golf. It was out front for public consumption and in so many ways it wasn’t pretty.
The fact that he went winless for the first time in a PGA Tour season? Yes, it bothers him, but what truly stung is the way in which his golf ball went so off line at so many times. When finally in August he made the leap to trust his swing to Sean Foley, he insists he embraced a key component to the transition.
“I was putting togther streaks of holes earlier,” he said. “Two, three, four, five – and then I’d lose it for a little bit. Eventually I needed to get to a full round and then eventually a full tournament and today was a full round. So that’s a good start.”
And a rare one, too, because in this upside-down season, Woods played 14 tournaments and 53 rounds (and that includes the Australian Masters) and had the lead at the end of the day just once.
Not exactly positive stuff from the greatest front-runner in the history of golf, but now that he’s gone into the lead for a second time in 2010, he’s excited to see what happens.
“Most of the year, if I did get something going, I’d make some kind of mistake,” Woods said, and that was the case back in August when after opening with a 7 under 65 to lead the Barclays and pushing to 8 under on his first nine in Round 2, he bogeyed four times coming home then made a triple-bogey to start his third round.
Another tournament was kissed goodbye.
Now even if that scenario were to repeat itself here, Woods insists he’s happy with the progress he’s making with Foley. No, things aren’t perfect. “It’s not totally natural yet,” he said of the swing, but he’s committed to their collaboration.
For all of those reasons, Woods appeared to be having the most fun on the first day of an event that might appear casual – at least until you look at the purse. It’s a very serious sum, $5 million, and while Woods has the inside track on the top prize of $1.2 million, Anthony Kim seemed intent on taking the last-place $140,000 crumbs.
Going through the motions to the tune of 79, Kim made just one birdie and seemed no closer to finding an answer to his puzzling game. Ranked 19th in the world when invitations to the Chevron World Challenge were mailed out Sept. 20, Kim is still at 26, though playing like No. 260.
No worries, perhaps, since it’s a festival of fun, a rich party to celebrate a season well played, and that explains why so many had smiles. None as wide as Woods, of course, although Nick Watney came close.
“I wasn’t in this tournament on Saturday,” he said, “so I’m thrilled to be here and to have shot even par.”
Only a few weeks ago, Watney got married and honeymooned on the other side of the world. First in Shanghai where he played four rounds in the HSBC Champions, then in Bora Bora with his wife, Amber.
“I’m not so sure she liked getting on the plane for a 12-hour ride to China,” Watney said. But, yes, Bora Bora made up for that.
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Extensive travel also was required by McDowell, McIlroy, Luke Donald, and Ian Poulter just to get here, the four of them having played last week at the European Tour finale in Dubai. They are globe-trotters, each of them, but proving he’s getting wiser by the day, 21-year-old McIlroy made the trip even more worthwhile by mixing business with pleasure – he stopped by a nearby Oakley office to sample the products he’s entitled to thanks to a new business partnership.
“A two-year deal,” McIlroy said.
Presuming that it meant 2011 and 2012, curious reporters suggested McIlroy was jumping in a bit early, wearing Oakley sunglasses and the company logo on his shirt and pants. He smiled and conceded that it might be construed a two-year-and-one-month deal, but he had to break them in.
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Storylines being thin this time of year, McIlroy and Oakley qualified as news, and so, too, did a caddie shuffle of sorts. Sean O’Hair has split with veteran bagman Paul Tesori, though Tesori is here this week working for Camilo Villegas. That’s because Villegas’ caddie, Brett Waldman, is at the final stage of Q School. As for O’Hair, he has teamed with Brennan Little, Mike Weir’s longtime caddie, but it makes sense because the Canadian is on the sidelines nursing an elbow injury.
Going forward into 2011, O’Hair said he wasn’t sure what he’d do. Being friends with Weir, “I would never get in the way,” O’Hair said, and a serious option is his father-in-law, Steve Lucas, who caddied for him for years.
“We’ve talked about it,” O’Hair said.
There will, of course, be more time to talk, because what sits on the horizon is the off-season. Then again, “off-season” is a matter of perspective, because while a good many players will start next season in less than a month, whether it be Jan. 5 in Maui or Jan. 12 in Honolulu, Woods figures to have seven weeks off, assuming he’ll start the next season at Torrey Pines Jan. 27.
To help ease his winter hibernation, Woods would love to store up the confidence, and a 65 surely has him pointed in the right direction.