Thousand Oaks: Tiger Woods barely qualified for his own tournament at the Chevron World Challenge, an indication that the last two years have been the worst stretch of his career.
His last two weeks of competition allow for a much better outlook.
A trip Down Under gave Woods plenty of indicators that his game might finally be on the rise. He had the 36-hole lead at the Australian Open and finished third, his best result of the year. Then came the Presidents Cup, where he played solidly for five matches at Royal Melbourne and was at his best in the final round of singles.
It wasn't the results, or even the scores, that pleased him. It was his play in blustery conditions - testing conditions in Sydney at The Lakes, even more demanding in Melbourne.
"Anybody who makes swing changes ... you get exposed in the wind," Woods said Wednesday. "I felt very comfortable in that wind, which was great."
He looked back to the early part of this year when he shot 66 in the second round of the Dubai Desert Classic and was right in the thick of the tournament. The wind picked up, and Woods had a 75-72 weekend to tie for 20th.
"I felt I should have won the tournament," Woods said. "A right-to-left swing cost me eight shots on certain holes, and I didn't have the ability to maneuver the ball left-to-right at the time. So the wind exposed me there, which was good.
"Playing in Oz for two weeks, it was fantastic," he said. "I hit all shapes, all trajectories, and if you look at the rounds, I hit most of my shots pin-high. That's an indication if the wind's blowing that hard, that I'm really controlling my trajectory well."
He might not be done with the wind just yet.
The forecast is for the famous Santa Ana wind to rip through Sherwood Country Club at least for the first few days, which figures to make it more difficult than the Australian courses because of the trees and foothills in Conejo Valley that make it hard to gauge just which way it's blowing.
The 18-man field is not quite as strong as it has been in years past because of the crowded global schedule. McDowell chose not to defend his title. He was at the World Cup in China last week, and wraps up his European Tour season in Dubai next week. Instead of a journey around the world, he chose to play in South Africa this week in the Nedbank Challenge.
Only PGA Tour members are at Sherwood this year, though it's a solid cast - 11 of them were at the Presidents Cup, while Gary Woodland returns from China where he and Matt Kuchar gave the United States its first World Cup title in 11 years.
Woods nearly didn't make it into the field. Because the Chevron World Challenge now offers world ranking points, the two exemptions had to be inside the top 50 in the world when qualifying ended in September. That was during the FedEx Cup playoffs - Woods was ineligible for those - and he was No. 49 at the cutoff date.
Now that he's here, it's another chance for him to measure his progress.
Woods will play the first round with Steve Stricker, one of his close friends on tour and regular partner. They played practice rounds at Royal Melbourne and a foursomes match on the first day. Woods suffered his worst loss ever in match play when Adam Scott and K.J. Choi beat them, 7 and 6.
Stricker was still rusty from having not competed in nearly two months, but he liked what he saw from his partner.
"He was hitting it as solid as I've ever seen him hit it," Stricker said during his pro-am round at Sherwood. "He's got his length back - he had it back last year, too - but he hit a 2-iron at Melbourne that was going forever. Into the wind, it was going like a 3-wood. He was just really compressing the ball and hitting it on a direct line."
Woods gave Stricker credit for sorting out a flaw in his putting stroke before Woods played his singles match, which he won to provide the cup-clinching point for the Americans.
That might be the final piece of the puzzle - putting and confidence, which often are linked in this game.
Woods didn't make many putts in Australia, though not many players did on the fast, firm greens of Royal Melbourne, especially in those gusts.
"He seems happy," Stricker said. "And he's getting his confidence back. He just needs to see the ball go in the hole a few more times."
Woods found time for a little humor Wednesday. He was told about a hockey helmet that Woods supposedly signed years ago and made its way to the Hockey Hall of Fame. A reporter told him it was going for $5,000 on eBay.
Woods stared at him blankly, and as much as the reporter tried to jog his memory, there was no recollection. He then was asked about his swing.
"I'm swinging the club well enough that you don't need to walk out there with hockey helmets on," Woods said.
As for his expectations, Woods said they have not changed. "Just place the ball in correct spots and get the W," he said. Even so, they would seem to be different than they were at the Frys.com Open the first week in October, when he had not played in seven weeks; or in Australia, after another month off.
He feels he is making progress, and only had to wait a week to show it this time.
"Absolutely I can sense it," Woods said. "I've made tremendous strides."