Woods has reason to look ahead

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THOUSAND OAKS, CALIF. (AP) - The first sign that something was different about Tiger Woods came during the pro-am.

After getting the yardage to the green on the par-5 13th hole _ 282 yards _ he pulled a 3-wood from his bag and asked a small group standing behind him, “Can I get there with this?”

“Eventually,” came one reply.

Woods smiled, tried to disguise a friendly gesture by scratching the side of his leg, then set up over the shot and drilled it. The ball never left the flag, cleared the bunker and settled some 30 feet behind the green.

His caddie, Steve Williams, looked on with a straight face. Shots like that have been rare this year.

Several more followed. When it was suggested toward the end of his round that Woods was playing his best on Wednesday, Williams again answered solemnly, “He’s done a lot of work since Australia.”

It was like that all week at the Chevron World Challenge until Sunday, when it mattered.

Equipped with a four-shot lead, Woods missed three putts inside 6 feet and his lead narrowed to one. Then, he fell into some old swing habits under the pressure of contending on the back nine. It has been one year and 20 days since he felt those emotions, and that’s when he was susceptible to crumbling.

Woods found his game at the end, but it didn’t matter. Even after hitting an 8-iron as pure as can be to inside 3 feet for an easy birdie, Graeme McDowell denied him victory with a stunning end to a great year _ he not only holed a 20-foot birdie putt to force a playoff, he then made a similar putt on the first extra hole to win.

For McDowell, everything is going his way _ a feeling Woods used to know well.

He won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He was the hero of the Ryder Cup for winning the final match for Europe. And he became the first player to beat Woods when trailing by at least three shots going into the final round.

No one else in 24 attempts managed to do that.

“Obviously I didn’t know the stat,” McDowell said, moving into understatement mode. “But I was aware that he’s a pretty good player and a pretty damn good closer. So yeah, to be the guy to break that run is pretty special. I’m sure he’s disappointed. I’m definitely a guy who says that golf needs Tiger Woods, and we need him back winning tournaments.

“He’ll be back winning tournaments very soon.”

If he looked like the Woods of old, he sure didn’t sound like it moments after shaking McDowell’s hand on the 18th green.

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