DORAL, Fla. -- Teeing off No. 10 on Doral's Blue Monster shortly before 8 a.m. with his caddie, Steve Williams, swing coach Sean Foley -- and his ever-present video camera -- and a couple dozen fans, Tiger Woods played his last practice round before the WGC-Cadillac Championship. He then answered questions -- yet again -- about where he was in his swing change.
The results on the course were a lot more positive that the cautious words he used off it.
Playing just nine holes -- Woods tackled the front nine on Tuesday -- Woods hit driver on four of the par-4 holes and 3-wood on the other three. His swing was much more in balance than when we last saw him in competition, whacking it into the desert and occasional water hazard during his first-round defeat at the WGC-Accenture Match Play two weeks ago. When Tiger missed fairways on Wednesday, it was not by very much, even though he hit two balls off No. 16 and three on the 18th hole.
Woods, sporting a goatee, was in good humor, chatting for several holes with Jim MacKay, Phil Mickelson's caddie, a Nike rep and his agent Mark Steinberg, who showed up on the 16th green. "Will you guys duck, please?" Tiger joked on the 16th tee as he zoned in on cutting the dogleg. "Even the photographers."
Woods hit both par-3 holes in regulation and several times stopped to practice short shots - hitting pitches from 70 yards, 30 yards, chipping from the fringe and working on bunker shots. Certainly, as wildly as Woods has hit the ball during the transition from the Hank Haney swing to the Foley swing, the most surprising part of his recent struggles has been erratic play around and on the greens. On Wednesday, he tried to put that into its proper perspective.
"It's a whole new release pattern [on all the shots]," Woods said after signing autographs and working on the range for 40 minutes following his practice round. "It's all related. I've changed [my release] on all my shots. You want to have the same type of swing from the putter through the driver." Getting that altogether is just a matter of time, Woods explained.
Asked how he felt about the recent remarks by NBC commentator Johnny Miller that Woods had lost his intimidation factor and confidence in much the same way boxer Mike Tyson did after losing to Buster Douglas, Tiger said with a smile: "I don't think I'm as big as [Tyson] is." Then he added: "That's Johnny being Johnny. Everyone has their opinion, and he has a lot [of them]."
Woods, who will be playing with Mickelson and Graeme McDowell on Thursday and Friday, has not been paired with Lefty in an early round in a non-major since 1998. "It'll be fun," Woods said. "We don't get to play together very often."
As for where Woods stands in his swing change, Woods cautiously and accurately said: "I can do it on the range, but I can't do it on the golf course consistently. Changing motor patterns takes a lot of reps. I know what I can do. It's just a matter of doing it. I've struggled before."
Asked why he does not play more tournaments so that he has more opportunities to groove his new swing under the pressure of competitive golf, Woods reminded us all of the elephant in the room -- everything else that had gone on in his life since Nov. 27, 2009.
"I have a family," he said. "I'm divorced and if you had a family and were divorced, you'd understand." That likely means that next week will be a family week spent with his two children, followed by playing the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill near his Windermere, Fla., home, another week off and then the Masters.
Watching Tiger and listening to Tiger, you get the feeling he is like a person who has started a new job. He knows he will eventually feel comfortable in his new surroundings; it's just that it takes time to get there. In those situations, we all want to look up one day and find out it is three months later and we are totally acclimated. But it takes time, and not even Tiger Woods can make time move faster.
Woods is in the process of developing an entire new pass at the ball, a process he has gone through before. But there are factors this time that didn't exist the last two times he has gone through swing changes: He is 35 years old, not 21; his left knee as been operated on four times; he has had cortisone shots in his right heel for pain there; his putts started to miss in 2009 -- before the swing change and life changes commenced. And then there is that elephant.
All this adds to one compelling drama; and the next act will be played out this week at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. There is one thing we do know for sure: No matter how Woods plays at Doral this week, he will be asked about it when the tournament is over. As he says: "It's a process." We just don't know where we are in the process.
-- Ron Sirak