THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — After stops in China, Thailand and Australia, Tiger Woods finishes his whirlwind "off-season" right where he started playing golf as a toddler, in sunny Southern California.
He also may finish 2010 where he began, at No. 1 in the world, if only for a few weeks.
Should he win this week's 18-man Chevron World Challenge (4-7 p.m. ET Thursday and Friday on Golf Channel; 3-6 on NBC this weekend) at Sherwood Country Club, and should Lee Westwood finish outside the top two at the 12-player Nedbank Challenge at Gary Player Golf Club in Sun City, South Africa, Woods would regain the top spot from the Englishman. The switch would only be temporary, however. Due to the World Ranking's two-year points cycle, Westwood will move back into the No. 1 spot in January no matter what happens this week.
The last time Woods started the season outside the top spot was 2005, having been passed by Vijay Singh the previous season. Woods regained No. 1 by winning the 2005 Masters in a playoff.
Tiger and Phil, golf's longtime one-two in the manner of Bing and Bob, Fred and Ginger, Johnny and Ed, are second and fourth. Seven of the top 11 are Europeans. (Perhaps the Yanks overachieved by losing the Ryder Cup by just a half a point.)
The hottest Orlando-based world traveler is not Woods, who was just 68th on the money list and hit just three of every four greens from inside 125 yards in 2010, but English clothier Ian Poulter.
One of the heroes of the winning European Ryder Cup team in October, Poulter tied for 13th at the HSBC Champions in Shanghai, won the Hong Kong Open, and last weekend finished runner-up to Robert Karlsson, thanks in part to his rules gaffe at the European Tour's season-ending Dubai World Championship.
"It's been a good stretch," said Poulter, who was wearing purple and in a chatty mood as he hit balls at the end of the Sherwood range before Wednesday's pro-am. Showing no ill effects from the 17-hour flight from Dubai, the world No. 8 Poulter looked up at the clear blue sky and noted with some amusement, "It's snowing in England."
The Chevron is an unofficial event that nonetheless is worth plenty of ranking points and cash ($5 million, $1.2 to the winner). Its small field makes up for in quality what it lacks in quantity.
The only absentees among the top 12 players in the world are Westwood, third-ranked Martin Kaymer, a late scratch after winning the Euro money title in Dubai, and Mickelson, who never plays here.
Woods will, as usual, get most of the attention, owing not only to his exalted status in the game (14 majors, 71 Tour titles overall, $94 million in career earnings), but also to the fact that he's spent the last 12 months in pop culture's celebrity spin-cycle hell.
"Like I said from the very get-go, there was certainly some boundary failure," he said at his press conference here on Tuesday, sounding a bit like an FAA official after a crash. "And it's about creating proper boundaries [going forward]. I'm excited about the future because of that."
Despite his numerous affairs, leading to his divorce from Elin Nordegren, the mother of his two children, Sam and Charlie, Woods stressed that fans have by and large remained supportive.
"The reception this year has been just — I'm so grateful," he said. "The support I've received day in and day out, not just at golf tournaments alone, just from when I'm just out, out and about. You know, people really do care, and it's — it was eye-opening for me to see that because I haven't seen that side, and how many people really want me to do well and be happy again."
Woods smiled as he made his way along the range Wednesday morning, signing a quick autograph as he walked to the practice putting green. He chatted with his pals John Cook and Mark O'Meara, who would play in Wednesday's pro-am.
"Hey, Woods, you're up," said the first-tee announcer, Tiger Woods Foundation CEO Greg McLaughlin.
Woods, whom Stewart Cink recently called "the blue giant in our galaxy," strode to the tee and began to shake hands with the amateurs who would play with him and behind him.
"Don't hit into me," Woods joked.
The 192nd-ranked player on the PGA Tour in total driving, he took out his 3-wood and found the fairway. As in China, Australia and most everywhere else he's played this year, the song remained the same: Maybe this will be the week Tiger Woods finally wins again.
2011 PGA Tour schedule to be released Thursday
Despite the economy and the implosion of Woods, the PGA Tour continues to do business at an admirable clip.
Sony inked a three-year extension to title-sponsor the 2011 season's first full-field tournament at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu. With GM coming out of bankruptcy, Cadillac committed to a six-year deal as the new title sponsor of the WGC tournament at Doral.
Those deals, announced this week, follow the announcement that Hyundai will sponsor the winners-only tournament at Kapalua, which will now be called the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said this week that the 2011 schedule is "just short of" 100-percent sponsored. It's expected to include 47 events.
Down Under's major moment
While there's little at stake in SoCal, defending champion Adam Scott heads a strong field at the Australian Open at The Lakes Golf Club in Sydney. Also in the field are Stuart Appleby, coming off his victory at the Australian Masters, Geoff Ogilvy, Fred Couples, John Daly and Greg Norman.
Couples and Norman announced earlier this week that they'll retain the same assistants for the 2011 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne.
Norman will lean on Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo, while Couples again will bring close friend Jay Haas and, if his schedule permits, Michael Jordan, whose assistant will not be Scottie Pippen.
Westwood tries to defend at Nedbank
World No. 1 Westwood headlines the Nedbank Challenge (9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. ET Thursday-Sunday on Golf Channel) in Sun City, South Africa.
Among others in the field: Padraig Harrington, plus South Africans Tim Clark, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Louis Oosthuizen.
Harrington is trying to finish what he calls "one of those years" on a positive note. Wasn't 2009 "one of those years" as well?
Women try to settle unsettled 2010
Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa are no longer No. 1 because, as the lottery folks say, you've gotta play to win. But who is?
The LPGA Tour Championship at Orlando's 6,518-yard Grand Cypress Golf Club may decide not only who winds up with the No. 1 ranking to end 2010, but also the money title, the Vare Trophy and the Rolex Player of the Year.
The best player in the women's game is, pick one, Jiyai Shin, Suzann Pettersen, Cristie Kerr, Yani Tseng, N.Y. Choi or Ai Miyazato.
Tseng has a cool swing. Kerr is telegenic. So is Miyazato, who is winning a quarter of the tournaments she enters (five Ws, 20 starts in 2010), a clip that we once would have called Tiger-like.
With six runner-up finishes but no victories in 2010, Pettersen is looking like the Westwood of the women's game.
Four players are averaging fewer than 70 strokes per round: Choi, Kerr, Pettersen and Shin. The last time more than one player finished the season sub-70? Ochoa and Sorenstam finished 1-2 in 2006.
Michelle Wie is out with a bad back.
Q-school offers thrills, spills, anti-nausea pills
Among the 166 players on the entry list for the final stage of Q-school at Orlando's Orange County National are players who finished 26-40 on the Nationwide Tour final money list and were thereby exempt from having to play the second stage.
No. 26 Scott Gardiner missed his 2011 card by $2,010 after making triple-bogey 6 on the 12th hole Sunday at the Nationwide Tour Championship at Daniel Island Club in Charleston, S.C.
PGA Tour cards for 2011 will go to the top 25 finishers and ties. Catch the calamity on Golf Channel, Saturday and Sunday, 1-4 p.m. ET.