THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — The goal for Tiger Woods has always been to be better than he was the year before. Despite losing his marriage and every tournament he played, he still gave himself a passing grade.
"As a golfer, I learned so much more this year than any other year — and as a person, infinitely more," Woods said Tuesday. "So it’s been a very successful year, even though it was a very painful year, as well."
That year comes to a close with the Chevron World Challenge, which starts Thursday featuring an 18-man field of players inside the top 50 in the world ranking. Woods has won the last two times he played, although he missed the last two years — in 2008 while recovering from knee surgery, and last year because of the Thanksgiving night accident that led to revelations of his infidelity.
It was a year that Woods described as "harder than anyone could have imagined."
On Tuesday of tournament week a year ago, the Florida Highway Patrol cited him for reckless driving and fined him $164 for running his SUV over a fire hydrant and into a tree outside his home, while a magazine had a cover story from a cocktail waitress who said she had 300 text messages to prove her 31-month affair with Woods.
His personal life was just starting to unravel.
Woods said he never thought about walking away from golf for the entire year, shooting down speculation in a book that he would enlist in the Navy. Woods said as a kid, he either wanted to be a pro golfer or a Navy SEAL.
"I love playing the game of golf," Woods said. "It’s fun, it’s certainly challenging, and it’s also something that I know when I do it right, I’m pretty good at it."
That was not lost on Ian Poulter as he hit balls on the range Tuesday morning and talked about the world ranking, amazed that Woods has lost more ranking points than any player has earned this year.
Poulter recalled a time not long ago when the distance between Woods and whoever was No. 2 in the world was greater than No. 2 and the player ranked 100th or lower.
"It shows how good," Poulter said, pausing. It sounded as though he was ready to say "how good he was," but the Englishman caught himself, because he believes Woods will return. "It shows how good he can be when he’s at his best."
Can he get it back?
"I think it’s in him even more," Poulter said.
Woods talked about the need to change his personal life and his golf swing, but he never explained until Tuesday why he had to change a swing that had brought him 31 tour victories, including six majors, under Hank Haney.
"As I played throughout the summer, I kept trying to do the things that I was working on with Hank over the years, and it just wasn’t working anymore, and it got to a point where I just couldn’t do it," he said. "It’s kind of hard to try and play tournament level golf, major championship golf especially, when at the time I was struggling with which way the ball was going to go. That’s not fun."
Why wasn’t it working?
"For some reason, it just wasn’t," he said. "And it was time to go a different route."
Woods is back to work this week, although only he knows to what degree his life is back to normal. He had a board meeting with the Tiger Woods Foundation on Monday night — Woods picked up the tab for dinner — and more meetings as the host of this tournament on Tuesday before a press conference and some work on the practice range.
He no longer is grilled about his personal life, including his divorce in August.
Instead, the focus has shifted back to his golf game, and there hasn’t been much to report on that front. Woods went without a win on the PGA Tour for the first time in his career. He lost his No. 1 ranking for the first time in five years to Lee Westwood of England.
The Chevron World Challenge does not count as official on the PGA Tour, although it does offer world ranking points, and Woods mathematically will have a chance to get back to No. 1 this week with a victory. That seems unlikely given his recent form.
Woods was asked why he hadn’t won this year, whether it was mechanical or mental, long game or short game.
"All of the above," Woods said. "I think I’ve dealt with a few things off the golf course, and on the golf course I’ve had to make some changes in my game. You combine all that together, it’s very hard to be efficient for 72 straight holes."
He has shown flashes — 7 under over his last seven holes in a Ryder Cup singles match, 6 under in his last six holes in Australia.
Still, this year goes down as an anomaly with Woods. No majors. No wins. And a career-worst 68th on the money list.
"It’s been difficult, but also it’s been very rewarding at the same time," Woods said. "It forced me to look deeper into myself and ... how I grew up and how those things didn’t match with the person who I am, and getting back to that, getting back to how my parents raised me. It’s been good. I’m very excited about the future because of that."