- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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While signs were pointing in the right direction for Tiger Woods heading into 2011, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of all as he celebrated his 35th birthday is the fact that -- from a golf standpoint -- this is his first "normal" offseason in years.
A year ago, his mind was anywhere but on golf as he dealt with the fallout of his personal woes.
Two years ago, he was barely even hitting golf balls after reconstructive knee surgery.
Three years ago, that same left knee was giving him enough fits -- unbeknownst to most of the world -- to cause concern about the 2008 season and limit his preparation.
By comparison, that makes turning the page on the calendar this time -- even while working on a new swing with instructor Sean Foley -- much more positive.
"I'm excited; I'm excited about this offseason," Woods said after losing in a playoff to Graeme McDowell at the Chevron World Challenge. "We -- we meaning Sean and I -- know the direction we need to go. That's exciting."
Whether that translates into victory will be the question that hovers over Woods for however long it takes him to end the victory drought.
His offseason preparation, health and what appears to be a more typical spring schedule will certainly be of great benefit in terms of preparing for the year's first major, the Masters.
And Woods' efforts with Foley appear to be coming along faster than anticipated when the two began publicly working together at the PGA Championship in August.
"He's very, very clear. He understands it," said Hunter Mahan, another Foley student and a frequent practice round partner with Woods. "He's 100 percent committed to it. I know he's working extremely hard right now to get this going by the beginning of the year so he doesn't walk into the first tournament and have to worry about it."
Said Foley: "The repetitions are starting to be a bit more natural. He's hitting golf shots instead of making golf swings."
In 2010, after a five-month break followed by a hurry-up preparation routine, Woods debuted at the Masters, where he somehow finished tied for fourth.
A year prior, after coming off knee surgery, his first tournament was the WGC-Accenture Match Play in late February. Although he won in just his third start back at Bay Hill, that still gave him just three tournaments heading to Augusta National.
It appears that Woods will open the 2011 season at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where he hasn't played since winning the 2008 U.S. Open in a playoff.
That will likely be followed two weeks later by a trip to the Middle East and the European Tour's Dubai Desert Classic. Two weeks later is the WGC-Accenture Match Play, which would then take him through the end of February.
If you pencil in the WGC event at Doral and the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where Woods has won six times in his career (including 2008 and 2009), that would give him a minimum of five tournaments before the Masters.
Although Woods endured his first winless season as a pro in 2010 and posted just four top-10s in 14 worldwide events (not including the unofficial Chevron World Challenge), those who played with him late in the year noticed his game coming around.
"I talked to him, and he's been working hard at it," said Steve Stricker, Woods' partner for three matches at the Ryder Cup. "Seems comfortable with the changes he's made. He looks pretty darn good to me."
Stricker said he's noticed that Woods is "not moving off [the ball] as much on the way back. He's staying a little more centered over the ball. It looks like he's got a little bit more control of the clubhead."
Said Stewart Cink: "I think he's kind of been sneaking up on playing really good lately."
The focus will undoubtedly be even more intense at the major championships, where Woods' legacy is truly defined.
He has now gone 10 major championships without a victory (although two of them he missed due to injury), matching the two longest streaks of his career. He has never gone more than 10 majors without a victory.
And while he has four Masters titles, he has just one victory at Augusta National in the last eight years. He has left frustrated in each of the past five years, with no finish worse than a tie for sixth, including two runner-ups but no victories.
After a year in which the majors seemingly set up so brilliantly for him (seven of his 14 majors have been won at Augusta, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews), the 2011 major venues after Augusta National do not offer the same good vibes.
The U.S. Open returns to Congressional Country Club, where Woods tied for 19th in 1997. (He has won at Congressional, taking the 2009 AT&T National.) He tied for fourth at Royal St. George's, site of the British Open, in 2003 in a year in which he went winless in the majors. And he tied for 29th in 2001 at Atlantic Athletic Club, site of the PGA Championship.
And, of course, the task does not get any easier. Woods is four major titles away from tying Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 -- or the number of majors that Phil Mickelson has won in his career.
Then again, Palmer and Tom Watson never won a single major after reaching that age.
"I still think he can [match Nicklaus]," said Woods' friend Mark O'Meara. "It certainly has been a big setback with what's happened in his life. And it's hurt to be kind off the last year and a half.
"But I still think Tiger is the greatest player who's ever played. He doesn't have the greatest record, but I just don't think there has been a better athlete in the game of golf. I still think he can do it."
Prior to last year's turmoil, Woods had typically excelled following breaks from the game. He was won the tour event at Torrey Pines six times, for example, and each of the last three -- 2006, 2007 and 2008 -- it was his first event of the season.
Perhaps it is too much to expect that again. But in four weeks time, Woods will again pursue the greatness that eluded him in 2010, knowing that putting those disappointments behind will depend on how quickly and frequently he experiences success.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.