What a difference a year makes
DORAL, Fla. -- These are familiar, comfortable surroundings, much more so than two weeks ago when Tiger Woods made his return to the PGA Tour at a venue he had never seen and had barely explored.
The course at Doral is far different in that regard. Woods has won here three times and never finished worse than a tie for ninth in six appearances. He played a leisurely practice round with Mike Weir on Wednesday morning and raved about the condition of the course.
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And you wonder whether he spent even a moment or two reflecting.
A year ago, Woods arrived at Doral for the CA Championship on an amazing run, even for him. He was coming off a dramatic walk-off birdie victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a win that kept him unbeaten for the year.
He had won six straight official tournaments worldwide and eight of his past nine. He had not finished outside the top 10 since the British Open the previous July.
Although the notion was absurd, there was considerable conjecture that Woods would win every tournament he played. And there was plenty of discussion about Woods' ability to win the Grand Slam, fueled in part by a posting by Tiger on his Web site in which he said it was "easily within reason."
Today, nobody is talking about the Grand Slam or winning streaks. The WGC-CA Championship, where Woods will tee off at 11:25 a.m. ET, is but another step in his journey back from surgery to replace his anterior cruciate ligament.
Woods himself talks of playing to win at Doral because that is what he is here to do.
But it is important to keep things in perspective. Although Woods has been practicing for the better part of the last two months, this is still just his third tournament since last year's Masters. Since finishing fifth at Doral a year ago, Woods has played all of 11 official rounds of golf.
"I think it just takes reps, rounds, being in a competitive environment and competing again," Woods said. "I've only played basically two tournaments in what, 10 months. Not a whole lot of golf.
"So for me, I just need rounds under my belt, and this week will obviously be very positive."
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Woods sounded encouraged by the way his left knee responded after the Accenture Match Play Championship, where he lost to Tim Clark in the second round. He reported no swelling, no soreness, no inability to do the things he needs to do to prepare.
But he is unable to say for sure where his game is at this point. He has hit plenty of shots on the range and taken a few dollars off his buddies at his home club at Isleworth. However, that's a bit different from playing against a field of 80 players with the entire top 50 in the world represented.
"Well, I don't know," said Woods, when asked how ready he is at this point. "I haven't played a stroke-play event yet. So it's kind of hard for me to give you a number on that because I've only played in the Match Play event. Physically, I feel good. But getting into a stroke-play event and where you're not playing an opponent and you're playing the golf course again. I'll have a better idea when the tournament is done."
And that makes it very difficult to speculate on Woods' readiness for the year's first major championship, the Masters, which is just 28 days away.
"It's much different because, obviously, I had an idea of how my game was and the things I needed to work on, where I needed to have my game go toward," Woods said of previous Masters preparation. "Right now, that's kind of out. I don't really know yet.
"That's why it's nice to be able to have the four rounds here and get into a competitive stroke-play mode again. I've only had the two matches there in Arizona, and that's it. But other than that, it will be nice to get a better understanding of what I need to work on the next month."
A year ago, there was no question about where Woods stood. Despite his victory streak, Woods made it clear that everything was about getting ready for Augusta National.
Little did we know that his knee was killing him -- and not getting better. He finished fifth at the CA Championship, his worst finish of the year. Two weeks later, he would finish second at the Masters by 3 strokes to Trevor Immelman. Two days after that, he was having arthroscopic surgery that was intended to get him through the rest of the season.
We all know what happened from there. In his zest to rehab from knee surgery, Woods suffered two stress fractures in his left leg that went undisclosed until after the U.S. Open. He somehow won that tournament, running his major victory total to 14 and his PGA Tour haul to 65.
Padraig Harrington won two majors in Woods' absence and will be going for a third straight at Augusta, but even that isn't getting the kind of attention heaped upon Woods.
"Tiger has taken away from every other golf story in the last few months, which is fair enough," said Geoff Ogilvy, who stopped Woods' winning streak here a year ago and will be trying for his third victory of the year. "He's the biggest story in golf when he's playing, and when he takes eight months off, it's obviously a big story."
It is, of course, an even bigger story now that he is back, perhaps even bigger than it was a year ago when he was making history nearly every week.
Now it is about getting back to that level of play, and each step, each stroke, each round at Doral is simply another part of the process.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
Phil Mickelson's 36th victory is also a first. After carding a final-round 69, Lefty notched his maiden WGC title at the CA Championship.