THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Tiger Woods was chatting with Ian Poulter and their respective caddies before the first round of the Chevron World Challenge at Sherwood Country Club on Thursday when someone raised the subject of the World Cup soccer tournament, and which country would host in 2014.
There was a long pause as they stood on the edge of the practice green. Then Woods piped up: "It's Brazil, isn't it?"
Indeed it is, and everyone knew it as soon as he said it.
"Leave it to the non-soccer fan to know," Woods said with a smile.
One year ago Tiger's life was a tangle of questions. What happened the night after Thanksgiving? What would he say about the reports of his infidelity? And where was he?
Today, Woods is starting to find some answers.
Under sunny skies and absent any wind, he shot an easy 65 to take the first-round lead of the unofficial, 18-player Chevron on Thursday, which is to say the most meaningless event of the season could wind up meaning a lot. The swing change he's been trying to groove under coach Sean Foley since August? Working.
"Yeah, I played good today," Woods said after making eight birdies and a bogey. "I really striped it, hit a lot of good shots."
When was the last time you heard him say that?
Playing two groups in front of Woods, Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy shot a pair of 66s.
The Chevron repairs groups after the opening round, and McIlroy, the 21-year-old who expressed his desire to face Woods in the Ryder Cup, will be put with Woods at 2:55 ET Friday.
It's been a bad year to be Tiger Woods, costly in more ways than anyone could possibly know. But even before he finally began his worst-ever season with a T4 at the Masters, he had already begun to resemble something less than himself.
His driver had turned against him. He wasn't making the clutch putts, and he hadn't won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open.
"I didn't like the angles of his swing eight months ago," said Poulter after shooting an erratic, even-par 72. "He was due for a bit of a change. We could all see it."
Today, Woods is figuring out not just his new golf swing but also his new life as a divorced father. He will celebrate his birthday (35) later this month. At Sherwood, an hour from where he learned the game at the feet of his father, he could win for the fifth time and temporarily reclaim the No. 1 ranking from Lee Westwood.
Maybe that's why Woods is smiling so much. After his 65, he signed his card, spoke disarmingly to the press and signed autographs for several minutes in the manner of Phil Mickelson.
A woman held out her hand and asked Woods to shake it.
"You don't want to get close to me," he said. "I'm sick."
The woman seemed to understand, and fans laughed politely at the exchange.
"Too many people think he's done," said caddie Mike (Fluff) Cowan, who worked for Woods for the first two-plus years of his career, including Tiger's historic win at the '97 Masters, and now works for Jim Furyk. "There's no doubt in my mind he's going to become what he was. I think it's right around the corner."
He isn't the only one.
"I played a practice round with him at the Ryder Cup," said Zach Johnson, who shot an opening 75. "He missed one shot."
In better weather and with less on the line at the Chevron, Woods split fairways with long-irons, 3-woods and yes, even his driver. He nearly holed his approach shot on the 449-yard, par-4 seventh and was inside eight feet for birdie on the par-4 ninth.
"I think next year's going to be a nice year for him," Sean O'Hair said after shooting a 72. "I don't think he'll dominate, but I think he'll win three or four times at least. By the end of the year he'll be playing some nice golf, and 2012 could be really good."
O'Hair and Woods share the same swing coach in Foley, who takes a holistic, highly individualized approached to his job. The proof is in the putting: Foley disciples Justin Rose, once the king of the 18- and 36-hole lead on the PGA Tour, and Hunter Mahan, a sometimes streaky enigma, each won twice on Tour this season.
The Foley/Woods union went public at the PGA at Whistling Straits, and it's become more than just the first relationship that didn't blow up in Tiger's face. He says he's hitting the ball higher, contrary to Foley's few critics. He's indisputably hitting it better.
Even when Woods was off Thursday, he was on. After his worst shot all day, a right miss on the par-3 12th hole, he nearly pitched his second shot in the hole, falling backward and laughing.
"It's not too often you can say 'I shot 65 and made only one putt,'" he said, "but that's kind of what I did today."
Perhaps most encouraging was that after Woods started hitting loose shots on 10, 11 and 12, he got it back, settling down until another right miss on 18 led to his only bogey of the day.
"That's something that earlier, when I was first working with Sean, I couldn't do," he said. "I know what the fixes are."
Woods shot a third-round 66 at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He was 9-under through 15 in dispatching Francesco Molinari at the Ryder Cup, where, according to McDowell, he looked "ominously good." Woods went 6-under for his last six holes at the Australian Masters, carding a 65 to finish fourth.
Friday will tell us if he can validate this 65 and up the ante for the weekend and beyond. It's been a long time coming.
"It'll be interesting to see what he does," said Stewart Cink, who was tied with Dustin Johnson after an opening 69. "I'm a golf fan as much as I am a player. I love watching guys and learning from them. He'll be fine, I think. I don't know if he'll get back to a point where he's winning 10 tournaments a year. He may not. That's freakish good. He still may become incredibly good."