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Even during offseason, Woods is right on track

Dressed in black, sporting a vacation goatee, looking lean and rested, Tiger Woods checked back into public life on Monday and pronounced himself feeling physically "stronger than I ever have" after the longest unforced break of his career.

Combining golf with fatherhood and the overall state of his life, Tiger Woods popped back into the spotlight after his first true offseason and appeared poised to rejoin his race against golf history. "This is the coolest ride ever," he said.

It wasn't like his "Hello, world," greeting of 11 years ago, when $42 million seemed like a lot of money for Nike to be paying Tiger, but times have changed and so has the net worth of the world's most iconic athlete. Tiger Woods will turn 32 at the end of December, and returns to the PGA Tour in 2008 with 61 career titles (21 shy of Sam Snead's career record of 82) and 13 major championships (just five back of Jack Nicklaus' all-time mark). He'll warm up next week as host of the Target World Challenge, and admitted he was out of the game just long enough to get his hunger back.

"I'm looking forward to getting back out and competing," Tiger Woods said. "This past week I started really missing getting out there and trying to beat people. Anybody at Isleworth who wants a game, we go out there and play and hopefully the cash goes my way."

The day was anchored around the launch of a new line of Nike drivers but also included promotional work with Buick, one-on-one satellite hookups with CNBC, ESPN, Bloomberg News and Fox Business News, and some indirect promotion of the PGA's Learning Center at PGA Golf Club, where all of this took place. Tiger Woods was on his game, both on stage with Golf Channel's Kelly Tilghman and on the range for an exhibition with the new Nike product.

Tiger Woods left the clubs in the garage for seven weeks, from the final match at the Presidents Cup until some sessions on the range last week at Isleworth, where 5½-month-old daughter Sam watched her dad hit shots.

"This has always been the case with me when I come back," Tiger Woods said. "First day I hit it like a god. Next day I'm a 5-handicapper. Third day I'm an 18. Next week or two I try to get it back to a 0 handicap. I don't know why it's like that. I always start out hitting it great, then I have this immediate falloff [as I] start thinking about my game, it goes all to pieces and I have to build it back up again."

His product demonstration of Nike's new Sumo and Sumo Square line was as much a display of his innate ability to change shape and trajectory as it was a testimony to the new technology. But since everything from the glove on his hand to the shoes on his feet, let alone the kick-point in the shaft and the feel coming off the face, has Tiger Woods' imprint on it, there was a direct connection.

"We've said it a zillion times but we're fortunate to be living in an era when we get to watch this happen," said Bob Wood, the president of Nike Golf. "Think about the next 3-4 years. He's going to go past 82 wins, 18 majors, he's going to get to 100 tour wins. This is unprecedented, unheard of. But even to see him hit the 5-wood today, nobody hits the 5-wood like that. Only one person on the planet."

Wood and Tiger Woods met the night before at the PGA Golf Club complex to go over the state of Nike Golf. They have done this almost annually since Tiger Woods turned professional in the fall of 1996 and Wood is never underwhelmed at the amount of input Tiger has on Nike product, or its bottom line.

"He's all over it," Wood said. "He's a geek for product. He loves the process of creating product. He loves working with creative people. He's curious."

The December sun was broiling as Tiger Woods worked his way through the bag until he reached the two clubs that brought him back on the public stage for this moment, those two Nike drivers. He swung effortlessly and the shots behaved on command, everything from the stinger to the high right-to-left sweeper required on the 13th at Augusta.

Between swings, a writer asked Tiger to name his favorite stat of the 2007 season. "Seven wins," he said, changing clubs. Words like "ardent" and "functionality" flowed out of his mouth as easily as the high draws "where I release my shoulders and swing out to the right," or the punch draws, "where I hold off the finish." He even explained the secret of the stinger as being nothing more to him than gripping down the shaft of a metal wood and swinging as if it were a chip shot with a sand wedge, the wrists cemented through impact. He made it all look so simple, hardly like the man who felt like an 18-handicap last week with his daughter watching, a club in her hands already.

"It's interesting," Tiger Woods said. "She shakes it every time I hit a shot. She gets excited, like this could be a good thing. She's never going to beat me, though."

There was the Tiger that Bob Wood described, the competitive junkie on every level. "Now he's a father," Wood said. "He's going into that whole hog. He's that type of person."

Tiger Woods explained in his news conference that every once in a while, just for kicks, he takes an old persimmon driver to the range at Isleworth. The good shots travel about 15 yards short of modern technology, but the misses feel like a 3-iron. With new equipment, at 80 percent effort, he flies the ball 290 yards with a graphite shaft and a titanium head, square head or jumbo-sized, which is long enough. When Tilghman asked him to re-enact his 362-yard carry onto the 16th green at Doral two years ago, he laughed and talked about caddie Stevie Williams kidding him about his follow-through being faster than his downswing.

And then he hit a ball that could not have been hit by persimmon, could not have been hit by any other human being. "That was about 90 percent," he said after the ball landed beyond a far-off stand of palm trees.

Think about it: stronger than ever and still with 10 percent in reserve. The day before, Nick Price raved about the way Tiger Woods swung the club at the Tour Championship, when he won by eight shots to cap a seven-win, one-major season. Price predicted that we could be seeing another 2000 again and without making any numerical predictions, so did Tiger's longtime business manager, Mark Steinberg.

Next week Tiger Woods and Steinberg will sit down to discuss Tiger's schedule and the road to Augusta. "It was a pretty grueling year so it was a good time for him to do it," Steinberg said. "That stretch from Akron until the end of the year, I don't know if we've ever seen that."

Tiger was just finishing one of his interviews with Bloomberg News, laughing about the time Warren Buffett was his caddie, having the billionaire carrying his bag, replacing his divots, giving him yardage as part of a charity auction.

It was Tiger as relaxed as he's ever been. His news conferences that once yielded empty pages in a notebook now conclude with observations and nuggets about how he really feels. His stand-ups with a news camera are sometimes as good as his television commercials. "He's very comfortable with golf right now," Steinberg said.

It shows.



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