Thousand Oaks:No matter how often he won, by however many shots, no matter how wide the gap grew between Tiger Woods and the rest of the world, he could never escape comparisons to 2000.
Some thought such a year could never be matched.
Woods won the last three majors, including record-setting wins at Pebble Beach and St Andrews, to complete the career Grand Slam at age 24. He won nine times and was in the top five at 17 of his 20 tournaments. He set or tied 27 records on the US PGA Tour.
By the numbers, it still stands as his greatest season.
As a player, most of his peers believe Woods has become even better.
"The reason people still talk about 2000 is because he won the U.S. Open by 15 and the British Open by eight," caddie Steve Williams said. "Those are the two biggest tournaments, and he won by 23 shots. So the public's perception of his year is based on two weeks. That will stand in our memories forever. That's why we're still talking about it."
"No doubt, this is the best he's ever played," Williams said. "He's in more control of his shots. I wouldn't even compare the years because they're so vastly different _ different in the way he plays, the way he manages his game, his course strategy. He's more equipped now."
Woods, ending a 10-week break this week at the Target World Challenge, talks about 2000 only in context.
He collected his ninth US PGA Tour player of the year award on Tuesday after winning seven times, including his 13th career major.
The numbers were slightly down from the year before, even though Woods looked to be more in control of his game.
He thought he had a better year, but when drawing comparisons, he focused on the ones that got away.
Woods finished two shots behind at the Masters, haunted by bogey-bogey finishes in the first and third rounds. He wound up one shot behind at the US Open, and still talks about a third round in which he hit 17 greens at Oakmont and could squeeze out only a 69.
"I was just a few shots away from doing what I did in 2000," he said. "If I get those done, people would probably be comparing it to 2000, if not better."
For those around him, they see far more control - the flight of his ball, the management of his game, and his life.
It has taken Woods close to a year to get over the death of his father in May 2006, and even now he talks about feelings of guilt about not spending as much time with Earl Woods.
"You always feel this sense of you didn't really capture each and every day with him," Woods said.
His daughter, Sam, was born the day after the US Open. His wife and daughter made a surprise visit to Southern Hills on the final day, when Woods captured his 13th career major at the US PGA Championship.
For those who wondered how fatherhood would change him as the most cutthroat player in golf, Woods smiled.
"I think the end of the year probably demonstrated that pretty good," he said, referring to victories in four of his last five events.
Even more daunting is the comfort he feels on the golf course.
For swing coach Hank Haney, the pivotal moment came Saturday morning at Oakmont on the first tee, a hole that looked extremely tight to Woods. He had planned to hit iron, but a shift in wind demanded driver, and Woods piped it.
That was a sign of confidence that has only grown.
"The best thing that Tiger does is he makes an honest assessment where he is," Haney said on Wednesday. "He can take a step back and make an honest assessment of how to get better. And it's always accurate."
So how much better can he get?
Woods is winning at nearly a 50 percent clip, an astounding rate in this era. He has won 15 times in 31 starts on the US PGA Tour over the last two years, and he has won as many times worldwide as the next five players behind him in the world ranking combined.
He stopped going to the practice range after a round at the British Open, mentally rehearsing his swing and learning to trust it.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg of where he can be mentally and confidence-wise with his swing," Haney said. "You're just starting to see it. We've seen it in practice, and now you start to see it on the golf course. It's a slow progression."
Meanwhile, the gap is no different from what it was in 2000, if not greater.
"The chasing pack is getting better," Colin Montgomerie said. "But the problem is, so is he. I always feels his best time was in 2000, and I think we're getting back to that level again. I think he's almost a better putter. But as a swing, he's very close. Very close."