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A healthy Tiger Woods trending upward

2/8/2012 - Golf Tiger Woods

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Bill Murray, his gray hair looking as if he'd just escaped from a Kansas twister, stood near the rear of the interview room as Tiger Woods made his way toward the door.

Murray is a regular here at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, winning the team title a year ago and making the golf world safe for Elmer Fudd hats, hula hoop dances and sand angels in the bunker of Pebble's world-famous No. 18.

Woods isn't a regular on 17-Mile Drive. He hasn't played in the AT&T in 10 years or at Pebble Beach in two years.

But this is the new and improving Tiger. His knees and Achilles no longer need their own health plans. His swing looks like it's on speaking terms with the owner. Wait -- is that a smile from Woods? Yes … yes, it is.

Woods feels good about himself and it shows. He is 36 going on content. He seemed, well, happy.

Murray had stuck around the Tuesday presser to thank Woods for writing a letter on behalf of a charity the actor endorsed. There was a handshake. A few warm words. More smiles. It was nice.

It's been two-plus years since the, uh, unpleasantries of 2009. His life, his swing and his outlook have done U-turns. He's not within a continent of perfect -- let's not go overboard here -- but there's something to be said for change.

"I feel very at peace where I'm at," Woods said.

This will be his first U.S. tournament of the 2012 season. He hasn't won an official tour event since 2009, hasn't won a major since 2008. He'll win one this year.

Why? Because it's inconceivable that Woods could go a fourth consecutive year without slipping on a new green jacket or kissing the Wannamaker Trophy, the Claret Jug or the U.S. Open trophy. Because he's healthy -- and I'm not just talking about his surgically repaired knees. And because he's less allergic to his rebuilt swing.

"Everything's headed in the right direction," he said.

Woods was talking about results of his last four tournaments (T-3 at Abu Dhabi, a win at the Chevron World Challenge, a Presidents Cup-clinching singles win in Australia, a third-place finish at the Australian Open), but why stop with golf? If you believe that everything is interconnected -- inner peace, health, all that good stuff -- then this could be a very good year for Tiger. And for all the golf-related planets that revolve around him.

He was in good form Tuesday, which is to say he actually talked about other things than ball "traj" (Tiger shorthand for trajectory). There was the obligatory "it is what it is" reference, but otherwise Woods was in a semi-reflective mood, depending on the question.

For large chunks of his career he made the game look easier than it had a right to be. He won with startling ease. He didn't simply dominate the tour, he made it do dog tricks ("Tour, roll over" … "Now play dead"). And it did as he commanded.

But then came the injuries (though he won the '08 U.S. Open on one leg). And then the fire hydrant of '09. And then the darkness.

So when you ask him whether he appreciates the game more now than pre-2008, he quickly answers, "I appreciate being healthy more. I think when we're all younger, we feel bulletproof or invulnerable in that sense because we heal so much faster. That's no longer the case."

But what about the game itself? What about the simple act of being healthy enough to hit a golf ball, to compete, to be Tiger again? Forget about bulletproof status. How about just enjoying yourself?

"I think it's more fun now than it used to be because now my kids are … at an age where they want to see Daddy on TV," Woods said.

And then he recalled a recent conversation with his kids, Sam and Charlie.

"Daddy, you're going to a golf tournament -- are you going to be on TV?"

"Well, I have to play well," Woods told them.

"Well, Daddy, can you please play well?"

Weird -- that's what PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, every tournament director and every TV executive says, too. What's good for Tiger is usually good for them. And golf.

Woods and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who plays to scratch, are paired this week at Pebble Beach. This is also a positive. Murray should be nervous about defending his championship.

"[Romo's] playing from the up tees this week, which will be fun," Woods said. "Yeah, that will be good for us."

Romo and Woods have been trading phone calls. They've even been trading golf video.

"He's been calling me quite a bit," Woods said. "Sending me video of his golf swing, 'What can I do? What can I do? Blah, blah, blah."'

Woods said it with a smile.

He's been a doing that a lot lately.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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