Tiger Woods smiles during a news conference at the Chevron World Challenge… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)
Thursday marks another new beginning for Tiger Woods. In the last two years, we have been through many.
Hope springs eternal. Confidence oozes. The end of the tunnel, where that light shines, is getting closer. It is just a matter of time, and the clock is ticking faster.
The rationalizations are growing old. It is time for the putts to drop. Woods would be the first to agree.
It has been two years since the man who used to win five or six golf tournaments every year, including a major or two, has won anything. We have been through injured knees and ankles, through divorce and personal debacle. One of the worst, most overused and meaningless platitudes in sports is when the athlete says he or she is putting it all behind them.
That being said, Tiger Woods needs to put all this behind him.
The set of jumper cables this time for Woods is the Chevron World Challenge at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks. The first of four rounds begins Thursday and the size of the purse is more than enough to attract attention. They will distribute $5 million among the 18 participants, including $1.2 million to the winner. The player who finishes last will get $140,000.
Groveling for an invitation, normally unseemly, would be perfectly understandable here.
Interestingly, Woods, the host of this event for the last 13 years, was nearly in a groveling position this time, not that it would have ever come to that. The invitees are the top 16 players in the World Golf rankings who accept an invitation to come, plus two sponsor exemptions. The sponsor exemptions need to be in the top 50 in world rankings. That was part of the deal when the event acquired world-ranking points for participants, a move that greatly enhanced its stature.
One sponsor exemption went to Bill Haas, the other to Woods. The cutoff time was mid-September, and there was a chance that Woods, struggling as he was, might slip outside the top 50. When he slipped only to No. 49 on cutoff day, there were huge sighs of relief among PGA Tour officials.
This is Woods' tournament, after all. It raises money for his foundation, which funds a major learning center in Anaheim and four satellites around the country for disadvantaged youth. Much of the money he has won here — finishing first four times and second four others in his 10 starts — has gone directly into the foundation.
So for him to be in a position for the tour to perhaps have to bend a few rules just to get him into his own event speaks to his struggles.
None of this has affected his celebrity. The window is closing on the time in which he can continue to struggle and still be king of the hill in golf, but it clearly remains open.
On Wednesday at Sherwood, a cloudless day that was expected to be the calm before windstorms that are predicted to brings gusts of up to 50 mph Thursday, Woods was the cat's meow. At midafternoon, from the hill looking down on the 18th green, fans watched him hit from the perfectly manicured, hourglass-shaped fairway and over the green-front pond. Talk was whether he would stop and sign.
And he did, spending time on the green with his pro-am partners and making sure to bump knuckles with a youngster who came out to tap in a short putt while Woods chatted nearby.
Soon it was time to walk and sign, sign and walk. The smile was as wide as the mouth of the Claret Jug.
Eventually, it was on to the press room, as always an eclectic gathering of believers, wishers, loyalists, sound-bite gatherers and cynics. The discussion used to be about what he had just done. Now, as it has for two years, it was about what he hoped to do. He hasn't looked back much, because there hasn't been much to see in his rearview mirror.
This time, his optimism gushed. In the past, there have been hedges and qualifications. His favorite phrases had become "It is what it is." And "This is a process."
There was little of that this time.
Buoyed by recent strong performances in Australia, including his role in the U.S. team's victory in the Presidents Cup, he emphatically answered a question about whether he now had a higher sense of expectation than in the last two years.
"Absolutely," he said. "I feel very excited about next year."
He answered various forms of the same question with the same enthusiasm.
"Absolutely, I can sense it," he said. "Absolutely, I have made tremendous strides."
He was asked if, when he got into contention in the Australian Open, it felt like the good old days.
"Notah [Begay, his friend and pro golfer-broadcaster] asked me that yesterday, and I told him I felt nothing," Woods said. "He said, good, because you are not supposed to. You're supposed to be there."
Woods will turn 36 on Dec. 30. Only Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk and K.J. Choi are older entrants in this event. Since the cutoff day for playing here, he has slipped three spots to No. 52 in the world.
The golf axiom since the mid-1990s has been to never count Tiger out.
So we watch and wait. Some more.