THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- He's won the tournament five times. His foundation runs the event and takes the proceeds -- $25 million and counting. It's his birthday next month. He grew up in sunny Southern California.
For these and other reasons, the unofficial World Challenge at Sherwood Country Club, now in its 14th year, is essentially a referendum on the state of Tiger Woods. Is he healthy? How's his driving? Are the putts falling? And what about his long-stated goal to win 19 majors -- where are we with that? Woods, who turns 37 next month, won his 14th and last major at the 2008 U.S. Open, which seems like a long time ago. Is the race to 19 majors over or has it just been on hiatus?
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"It's certainly been on hold," said Woods's longtime friend John Cook, who was at Sherwood for the Wednesday pro-am, but who is not part of the 18-man field. "There's only one person, with four or five more to go, who could possibly do it, who has the makeup and the fortitude, and that's him. That being said, if you really take into consideration what has to happen, he's got to win five majors. Well, that's at least a Hall of Fame career if not two Hall of Fame careers. That's a lot. That's a better career than anybody else who's playing the game, better than Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els and Vijay Singh. That would be hard to do.
"I am holding out hope," Cook continued. "Because I know what it means to him, and how hard he's working towards that. We're pulling for him." Woods says he's 100 percent healthy, and 2012 marked the first season in at least five years in which he was not mired in injuries, personal problems and swing changes. He won three times, on difficult, highly regarded and in a few cases major-worthy courses: Bay Hill, Muirfield Village and Congressional.
"I've played a full schedule for the first time in a long time," he said earlier this week, "and just very pleased with what I've done overall with my game. Last year at this point in time I was still not quite where I wanted to be, physically."
The Tour looks very different than it did in '08, when Woods was authoring his mythical overtime victory over Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines. Take a quick glance at the field at this week's World Challenge and you find no shortage of players who have either bested Woods eye-to-eye, or won big tournaments in which he contended. Webb Simpson won this year's U.S. Open at Olympic Club, where Woods looked to be in control the first two days. Ian Poulter, coming off a big win at the WGC-HSBC Champions, beat Woods, in team play, anyway, at the Ryder Cup at Medinah. Graeme McDowell beat Woods in a playoff here in 2010.
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Eleven of the 12 members of the U.S. Ryder Cup team will tee it up at the World Challenge at Sherwood; only Phil Mickelson is missing. Team Europe will be represented by McDowell and Poulter. Also playing this week: Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan, Bo Van Pelt and Nick Watney. It's a strong field.
Not here is world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, the game's new boy king, who is coming off a spellbinding season in which he won the PGA Championship, two FedEx Cup playoff events, the Honda Classic and last week's Dubai World Championship.
"I don't think [McIlroy] is going anywhere," said Steve Stricker, who is making his first start since Team USA's gut-wrenching Ryder Cup loss at Medinah two months ago. "I mean, he's young, very athletic, got a great swing, seems to have that desire -- all the things that you need to succeed out here on a regular basis. And he's got to have a lot of confidence from doing what he's been doing, winning both money titles this year."
Webb Simpson was so wowed by McIlroy's magical year, Simpson took a close look at the rankings with his caddie, Paul Tesori. They shook their heads in wonder when they realized the 23-year-old McIlroy's 597 points gained in 2012 not only led all players, it put McIlroy a whopping 238 points clear of the man who had the second best year vis-à-vis the World Ranking: Woods. "To be ahead by that big of a margin is unbelievable," Simpson said. People used to say the same about Woods, who plummeted to 52nd in the rankings as of a year ago, but is back to third, behind Donald and McIlroy. The Woods mystique, so helpful throughout his epic run through 2008, now but a shell of what it was, will be harder to get back. More than a few players have begun to talk about Woods like he's more of a precious artifact than a current event.
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"I talk to him all the time," Cook said of Woods. "I see his progress. I see [Woods's coach Sean] Foley a bit around Orlando, so Tiger and I are in constant communication. I do know the feeling he has about what he's doing, and he believes 100 percent in it. Right now it's just about getting better with the short irons, because these guys all hit wedges to 8-irons into every hole. That control with the short irons is something that's going to have to come back.
"He had that," Cook added. "Mark [O'Meara] and I talked to him a lot about that in his early years, that he needed to control his golf ball more consistently, and he worked on that, which was why he went to the stratosphere and got to be so much better than everyone else. He's got the new swing down, which took a couple years, and now that he's comfortable again, I think he'll dial the short irons in again and be back to where he was. I think he's well on his way."