On eve of 2011 debut, Woods feels ‘fresh’

Tiger Woods during a pre-tournament press conference at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Tiger Woods during a pre-tournament press conference at the Farmers Insurance Open.

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SAN DIEGO - At 35 and coming off a winless and life-altering year, Tiger Woods begins the 2011 season Thursday as curiosity as well as champion. The foregone conclusions of his dominant past have, at least for the moment, turned into questions about how much of his old dominance he can reclaim.

How many tournaments will he win this year? How many more majors will he win? Will he regain the intimidating mystique that weighed on the psyches of so many other top players?

“That’s fine,” Woods said on the eve of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where he has won his past five starts. “I’ve been through this before. All I have to do is to keep working and stick to the game plan, just like I had in the past. My record kind of speaks to that.”

The uncertainty is one of the beauties of sports. We get to sit back and watch as a reality show, now unpredictable, unfolds.

Woods pronounced himself fresh, pleased, optimistic and excited as this new and important chapter begins. He did so at perhaps the most crowded news conference ever for a world No. 3 this side of Q&A sessions at majors.

“This year, I feel great,” he said. “I do feel more fresh because I’ve had an offseason ... a chance to train and get ready and practice. So I’m looking forward to this season.”

The renewal that comes with a coming season is usually pleasant for athletes, not to mention fans. Hope isn’t undefeated, but it does have a better record than the San Antonio Spurs.

The turning of the page is particularly important for Woods, coming off his darkest year, both on and off course following the sex scandal that tore apart his family and derailed his golf. And it bodes well for him that he starts at one of his favorite playgrounds, Torrey Pines, where he has won seven times as a professional, including his last visit here, at the 2008 U.S. Open.

“I obviously was consumed by other things in the last year and had to deal with that,” he said during the 20-minute conference. “Life goes on and life moves forward. What’s most exciting about this year is having the proper perspective on things. My kids are doing great, and that’s my No. 1 priority. Golf falls somewhere down the list after that.”

Though his success rate plummeted in 2010, he maintains his expectations remain the same. In a word, high.

“Whatever event I enter (the aim) is to win the event,” he said. “The determination hasn’t changed. The goal’s still the same – try to beat other butts.”

This is a far different Woods than we saw early last year, when he was a mental wreck after revelations of serial affairs. You could sense the peace even before he spoke of it.

“In order to play this game at a high level, it helps to have a clear mind,” he said. “It helps having your life in balance. Certainly my life is much more balanced. That is exciting for me.”

He expressed such enthusiasm several times, regarding not only his emotional place but also his golf. After parting with Hank Haney in May, he began working with instructor Sean Foley in the summer on yet another swing change. In public, he showed flashes of his old brilliance late last year, at the Ryder Cup and in his own Chevon World Challenge. In private, he saw more improvement.

“(Sean and I) are excited about where my game has progressed over the offseason,” he said.

Apparently not just with making a new motion feel second nature and improving ball-striking that led to his ranking 167th in greens in regulation, a category he has led multiple years. Focus also was put on the short game he neglected last year during his personal crisis and swing overhaul. Woods had a substandard putting season. He tackled that problem with repetition.

“I was able to work on my putting and my stroke and go back to my old keys and feels,” he said. “It takes thousands of balls, and I was able to do that.”

Woods said he has made swing progress faster than expected. The fact he used some of the same positions in junior golf sped up the learning curve, he said. “(They) started coming back to me, and I felt comfortable,” he said.

It has been said for years that one swing key or one shot can catapult a golfer – for a week, a year, a career. One gets the sense that Woods believes that. At least he’s viewing one pressure shot in December as his silver lining to a lost season, his beacon of hope moving forward.

On the 72nd hole at the Chevon, he stuck an 8-iron shot to within 3 feet of the hole. He would lose a playoff to Graeme McDowell, but he has chosen to frame that single shot as a springboard.

“The whole year last year golf-wise came down to one golf shot,” he said. “Under the most intense pressure, I hit the shot I needed to hit. It’s nice to have those moments because they reaffirm what you’re doing is right.”

It’s sensible to conclude that Woods will return to his winning ways. Picking the number of victories is the hard part. It will be difficult for him to become as dominant as he once was while building up 71 Tour victories, including 14 major titles. Given his age and the rise of his competition, it’s highly improbable he’ll again win 51 percent of his Tour starts for a long stretch, as he did during a 3 1/2-year period in 2006-09.

At the same time, don’t expect anything resembling the imperfect ’10.

“Late last year, I saw his game getting back to where it was,” longtime rival Phil Mickelson said. “I expect he’ll be the Tiger we’ve known for over a decade – unfortunately.”

Mickelson gets no argument from Rocco Mediate, the ’08 Open playoff loser to Woods. The way Mediate sees it, only one club can hold Woods back.

“If he’s driving his ball straight, he’ll break Jack’s record (18 majors),” said Mediate, who is paired with Woods this Thursday-Friday. “If he gets to driving the ball where he’s looking, the game’s over. Trust me on that.

“I say he wins four times this year, minimum. You can’t hold this guy down for long.”

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