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Tiger's mojo returning at Pebble Beach is bad news for peers

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Tiger Woods gets a hug from partner Tony Romo, who thinks Woods has a 'great shot this week.' (Getty Images)  
Tiger Woods gets a hug from partner Tony Romo, who thinks Woods has a 'great shot this week.' (Getty Images)  

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- The symmetry only goes so far.

Which, for Tiger Woods, represents crackling good news.

In his last official PGA Tour round of 2011, Woods played perhaps an hour up the interstate, and was grouped alongside the same player he drew Thursday in his 2012 U.S. opener, former Orlando neighbor Arjun Atwal. He even shot the same score, a 4-under 68.

But the parallels between the state of his game at the Frys.com Open, played four months ago, and his PGA Tour opener at Pebble Beach pretty much end there.

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"God, it's night and day," Woods said. "It's two totally different deals."

Even better, unlike in his last round of '11, nobody in the gallery heaved a hot dog at him and got arrested, either.

From his opening approach shot at Spyglass Hill, which nearly knocked paint off the flagstick, Woods looked more confident and in command than at any point last season, firing the second-best round of his career at Spyglass, the toughest of the three courses at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

The fast take-away of Woods' opening day in the States was uniformly positive, but was obviously a freeze-frame snapshot of what he says will be a 20-start season, if he stays healthy. Based on what's transpired so far this year, the next two months will provide most of the evidence required to decide whether Woods will ever again approach his previous trajectory.

Expected to make as many as four more starts before the Masters, including two at familiar Doral and Bay Hill layouts where he has piled up multiple victories, Woods is approaching his psychological comfort zone -- a place he hasn’t much visited in over two years.

If Thursday was a tell, then his performance in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago, where he held the 54-hole lead, was a harbinger of binging to come. Woods managed six birdies at Spyglass, and showed flashes of his old self when things got sort of dicey, converting a pair of long putts on the back nine to keep momentum from slipping away.

After eyeballing the scoreboard, he groused that his missed opportunities left him a few laps down to leaders Dustin Johnson, Charlie Wi and Danny Lee, who all are 9 under. But they didn’t play Spyglass, a course where Woods had broken 70 once in six previous tries.

"This is the toughest of the three," Woods said optimistically. "Hopefully, tomorrow, I can get it going."

He seems headed in the right direction already. As it was, he managed the fourth-best score at Spyglass and was locked in at T15, with the presumably easier Pebble and Monterey Peninsula designs left to play.

Not only has his disposition and consistency improved, it seemed as though his mojo might finally be changing. After two years of living under a black cloud -- sure, it was largely of his own doing -- Woods actually was the beneficiary of a couple of good breaks on Thursday.

On the par-5 seventh hole, Woods yanked his approach shot and it trickled down a slope toward a watery grave in a greenside pond. But the ball caught a tuft of grass and stayed dry, and he got up and down from inside the hazard line for a birdie.

A woman along the ropes nearly hyperventilated as the ball rolled toward the water, then stopped. Maybe Woods' karma has changed, a fan noted.

"I came here to change his luck," the woman said, before hustling up to watch Woods finish off the hole.

Maybe it already has. One of the members of his camp, caddie Joe LaCava, is a lifelong New York Giants fan who attended the Super Bowl in Indianapolis last Sunday, hung around a couple of hours for some revelry, then drove to Chicago and caught a flight to San Jose. He was standing on the tee box on Monday at no one when Woods showed up for a practice round.

"I am high on life," La Cava laughed.

Woods is getting there. In what could broadly be interpreted as a good sign, Woods beefed at length afterward about his sloppy short-iron approach shots, which left him with medium-length putts that he couldn’t convert. But in the bigger scheme, he looked completely more on balance and at ease than when he played the Frys.com event in October.

He looked better than ever off the tee, missing two fairways, and found 14 of 18 greens. He made two momentum-salvaging putts on his back nine and was in such a good mood, he turned into a veritable Dallas Cowboys cheerleader at times.

Pro-am partner Tony Romo, the Dallas quarterback, nearly drove the fourth green from the tee, prompting Woods to erupt in mock anger when the ball came to rest on the fringe and not on the putting surface.

"Come on!" Woods barked, grinning at the quarterback.

"He's playing so well, golf's always more enjoyable, like any sport, when things are going good," Romo said. "He's an outstanding player and competitor and anybody who walks along with him can see the shots and you just know he's hitting the ball well.

"I think he's got a great shot this week."

For context, in his six previous trips to Spyglass, Woods had only once recorded a number in the 60s, and that was 11 years and a three swing coaches ago.

For months, as his world ranking and public approval stock have taken a beating, Woods has stoically maintained that he's been down this path before, having navigated through swing changes and injuries sever times in the past.

"It's going to be long," he said. "You have to be patient."

Actually, despite the similarities in tone and content, that comment wasn't about his latest comeback and/or makeover. He was talking about the length of the interminably long pro-am days at Pebble. But even the soul-sucking pace of play didn’t seem to bother Woods, whose foursome took 5 hours, 42 minutes to complete the round.

Finally, after a couple of lean years where his game was in disarray and he seemed to be in denial, Woods is less about the bombast and more about the bomb blasts. Nobody needed to look any farther than his last appearance in this region, at the Frys event, for proof.

"I'm stronger and more explosive than I was then," he said. "I feel much more comfortable with my game than certainly I did then."

Over the next two months, we'll see how much discomfort that causes for his peers.

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