Despite busy offseason, Woods ready to get back to work
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- There are the myriad business interests and the endorsements, the new golf course design career and the family. There are the cool perks that celebrities get, such as luxury box seats at an NFL game or ringside seats at Saturday night's Floyd Mayweather-Ricky Hatton fight in Las Vegas.And then there were the bizarre questions Tiger Woods fielded during a Tuesday news conference from a British female "reporter," who, among other things, managed to ask if her boyfriend's sexual habits meant she should dump him. Woods never saw that one coming, but quickly recovered and dismissed her as if she were Rory Sabbatini. And so it went for the world's No. 1 golfer, who is ready to get back to competition this week at the Target World Challenge, his first meaningful golf since the Presidents Cup at the end of September.
There's good news for those hoping to chase down Tiger this week at Sherwood Country Club: He is rusty. The bad news is that the two-month-plus break he took from golf, along with all the other stuff he has going on in his life, is unlikely to deter him from chasing more golf greatness as the 2008 season rolls around.In fact, it might even help. "It was nice to actually shut down and not have to work," he said. "I've been away from the game, got away from it. As soon as I got back into it, I felt I was on a clean slate. It felt great." Woods received his third consecutive PGA Tour Player of the Year award on Tuesday, the ninth time in 11 pro seasons that he's been accorded the honor by a vote of his peers. If it is starting to seem routine, the way he went about it certainly was not. Woods' 2007 season was ever so close to his epic 2000 campaign, when he won nine times on the PGA Tour, including three straight major championships. This year saw just one major title, the PGA Championship, but there were victories in two World Golf Championship events as well as two of the new FedEx Cup playoff tournaments. He won four of his last five events, running his major total to 13 and his PGA Tour count to 61. "I had a great chance to win three of the four majors this year; I finished second in two of them," Woods said, referring to the Masters and U.S. Open. "I was just a few shots away from basically doing what I did in 2000. It wasn't that far away." Woods will enter the 2008 season with a whopping lead over Phil Mickelson in the Official World Golf Ranking. It was less than three years ago that Woods was in a tussle with Vijay Singh for the top spot, as they traded places for several months. But that seems like ancient history now. Singh has dropped to 10th. Steve Stricker, who was named Comeback Player of the Year -- for the second straight year -- has risen to fourth, with Jim Furyk third. "I don't think it's getting closer," Stricker said. "Just playing with him toward the end of the season and watching what he does and what he's capable of doing kind of just blows me away at times." It is hard to believe that Woods actually had a brief lull in '07, going from the Wachovia Championship in May until the Bridgestone Invitational in August without a victory. Of course, during that time he finished second by a single stroke at the U.S. Open, welcomed his daughter, Sam, into the world, helped launch the AT&T National, one of the three tournaments (along with the Target and Deutsche Bank) to benefit the Tiger Woods Foundation, and got something to click in his game that resulted in his late-season run, starting with an eight-shot victory at the Bridgestone. "The thing that amazed me is that people continue to doubt him in a lot of contexts," said friend Notah Begay, who was playing in a pro-am on Tuesday. "Guys like Stephen Ames and Rory Sabbatini say stuff like they do. ... In both of those cases, it was great that he came back and he beat Stephen 9 and 8 [at the 2006 Match Play] and sort of embarrassed Rory on national TV [at the Bridgestone]. What was even better and more impressive was that he let his clubs do the talking. And that's what he's done on a number of occasions. I think that's fantastic." While he put those clubs away for two months, Woods did not forget about golf. He used the time to work on his fitness and recover mentally from the grind of a long season. Last weekend, he met his instructor, Hank Haney, in Las Vegas, to get back to work. "He just wanted to make sure that he had his bad shots analyzed correctly and that he was on the right track, but really nothing more than that," Haney said. "I just provided a little confirmation, but other than that there wasn't much to it. It once again showed me how far Tiger has come with his knowledge of his swing and exactly what he is trying to do. I have always said that if you do a good job as an instructor, you should make your student their own best teacher, and that is what I am the most proud of with Tiger." Woods is the defending champion of the Target, a big-money offseason event he has won three times and where he always donates his earnings to the Tiger Woods Foundation. Given his relative rustiness, Woods would be excused if he were to struggle in the $5.75 million tournament that pays $1.35 million to the winner. Then again, given the way he deals with all that surrounds him, that seems unlikely. Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.