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Steve Stricker played with Woods in the opening round at Sherwood a year ago when Woods opened with a 65. He was with him for the first round this year when Woods shot 69 in gusting conditions.

“Last year I played with him here in the first round and I thought, `Wow, this guy is back,’” Steve Stricker said. “But you could tell this time around, he’s got even more confidence and more game. He feels even better about the direction he’s headed.”

We’ll have to wait a few months to see exactly where it’s headed.

Woods said he worked so hard after missing the cut in the PGA Championship that despite winning so late in the year, he was looking forward to a break. He will not compete again for nearly two months _ until starting his 2012 season in Abu Dhabi against a world-class field, with Martin Kaymer as the defending champion.

“This tournament would be a good win for him,” Stricker said as Woods was locked in a duel with Johnson on the back nine. “It’s not against a full field or anything like that, but there are good players here. This would be a great stepping stone for him.”

Even when it was considered part of the silly season, this tournament has a history of leading to better things for the winner.

Tom Lehman won in 1999, and then captured the Phoenix Open the next year to end a four-year winless stretch on the PGA Tour. Davis Love III won in 2000 and two months later won at Pebble Beach for his first tour victory in nearly three years. Luke Donald won in 2005, and the next year won the Honda Classic for his first tour win in four years. It even worked for Woods at the end of 2004, which at the time was his worst year on tour. The following season, he won two majors.

In the most recent example, and the one Woods cited on the 18th green, Jim Furyk won at Sherwood in 2009. The following year, Furyk had a career-high three wins on tour and captured the FedEx Cup.

If there is a rush to declare that Woods is back _ or at the very least, on his way _ it’s because fans have been clamoring for him to show signs of life.

One win is not enough, even if it had been against a full field. And while the finish was vintage Woods, it looked as though he had to work much harder to give himself a chance at the end. How much Woods gains from this win will not be determined for several months.

But he got something out of it, for sure.

“If he steadily progresses, keeps getting confidence and moving forward,” Furyk said, “he’s going to return and be one of the best players in the game again.”