Tiger Woods lost in playoff last year at the Chevron.
Danny Moloshok/Reuters
Thursday, December 01, 2011

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Sean Foley was on vacation with his family in the Dominican Republic when his most famous student, Tiger Woods, gave arguably his finest performance since he began to revamp his swing under Foley in the summer of 2010.

It wasn't just that Woods seemed to be playing golf instead of golf swing, or that his good putts were finally going in during his 4-and-3 demolition of Aaron Baddeley in Sunday singles at the Presidents Cup. There was something about the way Woods hopped out of the bunker after playing his third shot on the 584-yard, par-5 15th hole, a blast that would turn out to the be the decisive shot in the match.

"I think it was 2 a.m. in the Dominican," Foley said as Woods played his pro-am round at the Chevron World Challenge at sun-splashed Sherwood Country Club on Wednesday. "I was on vacation with my family, so I watched it until about 2 a.m. every morning, and I saw that. He sprung out of that thing; it was very good to see. That was when he closed it out -- beautiful bunker shot."

Woods had a noticeable spring to his step that has been absent while he's battled a series of injuries and surgeries to his left knee.

"That was awesome," Foley continued. "People don't understand that form follows function. If you don't have the function biomechanically or physiologically, you're not going to have the form."

There are only 18 players in the field at this week's Chevron, an unofficial tournament on the PGA Tour that nevertheless bestows World Ranking points. FedEx Cup champion Bill Haas said he could not recall playing in a tournament with a smaller field, not even in college.

And yet this year's Chevron could potentially be one of the most significant weeks of the year if Woods prevails. He hasn't won a stroke-play tournament in more than two years, and he has dropped to 52nd in the world behind such players as Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (46), who is not in the new Muppets movie but has a win and two runner-up finishes in his last four starts on the European Tour.

"I feel excited about the progress I've made," Woods said at his press conference after finishing up his pro-am round Wednesday, a round Foley called a ball-striking clinic.

As recently as a year ago, Woods said, he couldn't work the ball both ways, leaving him exposed when the wind blew, as it did in Dubai in February. Woods was in contention to win for the third time there until he struggled to a final-round 75 to tie for 20th place, well back of winner Alvaro Quiros. Since then, Woods has developed a reliable left-to-right shot. He hit two such 5-woods, keeping his ball safely between the trees, to reach the green in two on the 563-yard, par-5 16th hole Wednesday.

Woods may get to test his improved wind play in Thursday's first round, when winds of up to 30 mph are forecast to blow through the hilly, canyon course. Woods will tee off with friend Steve Stricker at 1:10 p.m. ET.

The Chevron field also includes Keegan Bradley, Paul Casey, Jason Day and the winners of last week's World Cup, Matt Kuchar and Gary Woodland. They became the first American winners of the event since Woods and David Duval in 2000. Also at Sherwood, where temperatures have reached the mid-80s: K.J. Choi, Rickie Fowler, Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson, Martin Laird, Hunter Mahan, Webb Simpson, Steve Stricker, Bo Van Pelt, Bubba Watson and Nick Watney. Last place is worth $140,000.

The European Tour's offering this week, the UBS Hong Kong Open, is the last chance for players to crack the top 60 on the money list and get into the season-ending Dubai World Championship. Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington and Y.E. Yang headline the field, and Ian Poulter returns as the defending champion.

Also this week: the 12-man Nedbank Challenge at Sun City, a silly-season cash-grab on par with the Chevron, will include Luke Donald, defending Sun City champion Lee Westwood, and Martin Kaymer -- three of the top four players in the world. Charl Schwartzel and 2010 Chevron champ Graeme McDowell will also be there.

Woods would render alternate programming moot with a victory at Sherwood, where the buzz is that he's finally mastered his new Foley-designed action. He's no longer taking a series of check swings on the course; he's pointing and shooting. Something seems to have clicked, just as it seemed to have clicked in Melbourne.

"Tee to green was excellent," Foley said of Woods at the Presidents Cup. "He might not have holed a lot of putts, but he hit a lot of good putts. Besides maybe that first match with Stricks [Stricker], I thought he played great in every match."

Other than that first match, Woods said, "I played really good." Woods had meetings before a short range session and nine holes at Sherwood on Tuesday, and he was off early for his pro-am round Wednesday before a press conference. Foley said Woods is beginning to make the swing changes his own, which is a key step for students working on a new action.

"The more they get into it, the more they get into their own intricate identities with it," Foley said. "So it's not me just saying, 'Do this,' or 'Feel this.' They start getting their own feel. Like, 'I found out that if I feel this, and I work on this motion, I get exactly what we want.' So it becomes their own, which is totally necessary. That just comes from playing 36, 45 holes a day, good range sessions."

"I've always felt in my career that I was more comfortable when I was able to practice a lot," Woods said. "Sean's got me into a position that I recognize. He wanted me to swing like I did when I was a kid. If you saw in Australia, I hit the ball pretty good."

In addition to changing his full swing, Woods has also changed his putting stroke, altering his ball position -- "a big thing to change," Foley said.

Woods has said all along that he needed "reps." He's gotten them. He shot a final-round 67 to finish third at the Australian Open. He went 2-3-0 at the Presidents Cup, playing well enough to validate U.S. captain Fred Couples's faith in him as a wild card. All that remains for the former No. 1 is to start winning again.

On a course where he finished runner-up a year ago, where he set the course record (62) in 2007, and where he has won four times, Woods might be on the verge of the first W of the rest of his career.

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