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Lateral Hazard: Tiger Woods looking more and more like he's returning to form

Brian Murphy
Yahoo Sports

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Tiger Woods celebrates after winning the Farmers Insurance Open. (USA Today Sports)

All right, Tiger. We see you.

There you are, going deep in your first PGA Tour at-bat of the season. Enjoy the trot.

When I say "we" see you, I mean guys like me – longtime golf observers who have wondered if you would ever be able to reclaim "the whole package," as you so calmly called it in your Sunday night news conference. We know you won three times last year, but there were nagging questions: distance control from 140 yards and in, and a balky putter primary among them. Also, we wondered if the landscape had changed around you, that youngsters like Rory McIlroy had no fear of you.

After you laid waste to a good field at Torrey Pines (yes, I'm ignoring the sloppy finish), some of those questions are under re-examination. Your distance control with your short irons looked dramatically better, and you pounded greens in regulation in San Diego like the PGA Tour pounded anti-Twitter screeds. And your putter looked calmly effective, which should alarm the rest of the Tour.

Sure, the driver got erratic in the final round, but you dialed up magic when you needed it, like that ridiculous par save from the 11th hole bunker on Monday, or the par from the trees on the ninth hole Monday, or the "Bent Elbow Special" on the fourth hole Sunday. Your drive nestled behind a tree, you used that imagination of yours to make a chicken wing of a swing and sort of "cut-block" a golf shot to the neck of the green. From there, you chipped in for birdie, and as hang gliders applauded you from above the green, and the Pacific Ocean glistened in the late afternoon sun, and you extended a clenched fist, the only thing missing was the "Theme from Shaft" playing as you walked to retrieve your ball. That Tiger is a bad mother …

OK, so the doubters will say until you win a major, you're not officially back. And I get that. And the doubters will say your four wins in the last 10 months were all at places where you are in a supreme comfort zone of multiple wins – Torrey (eight!), Bay Hill, Muirfield Village and your own tournament at Congressional; that maybe your Tiger-ness, at age 37, won't translate to Merion's U.S. Open or Muirfield's British Open. (By the way, the "Tiger-only-wins-at-certain-courses" theorists should include Augusta National in that list, even though it's been since 2005. It'll happen again amid the cathedral of pines.)

[Also: Tiger Woods records 75th career victory]

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Woods is optimistic his short game will improve this year. (AP)

That other bit of doubt – that the Rory-influenced landscape around you has changed – is also up for reconsideration. Until we see McIlroy dominate with his new Nike golf clubs and new Nike swoosh and new Nike pressure, maybe it's fair to wonder if McIlroy will have lost some of his newfound edge. As Tiger was obliterating the field at Torrey, I kept having a mental image of Rory sitting alone in a hotel room somewhere, staring at his Nike golf bag and clubs. If it were a painting, we could call it "Creeping Doubt, Still Life."

The part that sold many of us, Tiger, was your reasoned assertion Sunday night that your short game will be better this year because you've had more time to work on it, now that your Sean Foley-coached swing is more grooved. Your argument that most of 2010/2011 was spent learning the new swing, at the expense of short game practice, makes sense. And now that the swing is more natural, you can return to honing that dagger-sharp short game, the one that cuts out opposing hearts and removes them, still beating and dripping with blood of the victim. It's a telltale thing.

For those of us who've doubted your killer instinct since the Escalade hit the tree on Thanksgiving night in 2009, you're coming for us. I can see it. You do those press room sessions where you say things like, "Well, I've had a pretty nice career," or "Well, I'm proud of some of the things I've done," using barely-restrained understatement instead of grabbing us by the lapel and shouting: "WHAT PART OF SEVENTY-FIVE TOUR WINS AND FOURTEEN MAJORS AT AGE 37 DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND, DOOFUS?"

And now look – after a winless 2010 and 2011, now it's four wins in your last 16 PGA Tour starts. That's a trend. Batting .250 may get you only a utility man's gig in Major League Baseball. In golf, it's Mike Trout-plus-Miguel Cabrera type stuff. It's a home run, leaving a tracer arc across the golf sky. We get it. It's on.

SCORECARD OF THE WEEK

67-70-64-69 – 18-under 270, Chris Wood, winner, European Tour Qatar Masters, Doha Golf Course, Doha, Qatar.

Do any of you American golf fans remember an awkward-looking cat, goes about 6-foot-5, Englishman, red hair, playing well at some British Opens? Yeah, sure you do. Chris Wood is his name. As an amateur, he took fifth at the 2008 Birkdale British Open won by Padraig Harrington. The next year, he took third at the famous Stewart Cink-Tom Watson British Open at Turnberry.

And all the while, you thought the same thing I did: Man, you don't see that dude's look very often on a golf course. What is he, about 6-foot-5 with red hair?

Well, look who's only 25 years old and pulling off a thrilling win at the Qatar Masters. Welcome to the winner's circle, Chris Wood.

Sergio Garcia played great in Qatar, and finished at 17-under, tied with South Africa's George Coetzee. They were thinking playoff, as they watched 54-hole leader Wood, still without a European Tour official win, fritter his three-shot overnight lead into a two-shot deficit after nine holes.

Wood came to the 18th one shot back of Sergio and Coetzee, looking at a major choke job. Already the owner of three runner-up finishes and 19 top 10s, and a couple of blown leads, Wood needed something good, lest he continue the moniker of "Really Tall Dude Who Can't Seem to Win."

How about these apples: On the closing par-5 Wood hit driver, 6-iron from 202 yards, and drained his 10-foot eagle putt. For the win! He called it "an enormous weight" lifted from his shoulders.

Nice work, Wood. Between Qatar and Torrey Pines, it was a heck of a weekend for players whose last names are lumber-related.

The win should vault Wood into the top 64 of the Official World Golf Ranking, meaning he has a shot at playing in the World Match Play in Arizona for the top 64 players. If he does play, you'll notice him. He's the spindly 6-foot-5 cat with the red hair. Don't see many like him.

BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK

"That's a three, net one." – David Feherty, CBS, after Tiger's chip-in bird on the fourth hole on Sunday.

And with that, we welcome back the CBS crew for 2013. Everybody played his role to the tee: Feherty's savage wit in mid-season form, Gary McCord's enthusiasm leading to a quick-breathed panting as Tiger's chip approached the hole, Jim Nantz stoking the over-80 heavily-Caucasian crowd with a solemn-voiced eulogy for the late singer Andy Williams as "Moon River" plays in the background, and Sir Nick Faldo just, you know … being Sir Nick Faldo. That's Sir, by the way. Still.

[Also: U.S. Open returns to site of Phil Mickelson's demise]

Broadcast Moment of the Week, by the way, is in danger of being co-opted by The Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee on a weekly basis. He continually drops knowledge and perspective in round recaps, and this week said after Sunday's round that Tiger Woods would win because he is the only player in the world "for whom you can eliminate the concept of pressure." Strong take. Chamblee is threatening to become the next Johnny Miller. That means the "freshly honest and insightful" Johnny Miller, not the "every player hates him because he says 'choke' " Johnny Miller.

MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK

It's sort of hard to pinpoint a golf shot a player would want back when the winner moonwalks home by a million shots. I mean, what – give Nick Watney a do-over on his 10th hole final round bogey so he can stay within five shots of the runaway locomotive that was Tiger?

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Phil Mickelson hasn't played that great during his first two events of the season. (Getty Images)

Instead, let's use the obvious mulligan of the week, giving Phil Mickelson an "I take that back" on his "My taxes are too high" riff. Sure, he's free to state it and feel it and vote it, but in a position of public profile, when many less fortunate fans who live paycheck-to-paycheck seek entertainment from Lefty, they probably don't want or need to hear that Phil's tax rate troubles him.

But let's use the moment to ponder Mickelson, who just played sorta "blah" golf in his first two starts, at PGA West and now Torrey Pines, where he tied for 51st. Remember, this is a player who is so dominant on the West Coast Swing, he may one day have the West Coast Swing named after him. Can't you hear a gray-haired Jim Nantz say, "Hello, friends, and Welcome the Phil Mickelson West Coast Swing" or better yet, "Hello, friends, and welcome to the West Coast Swing, presented by Phil Mickelson."

Lefty almost always bags a win on the West Coast, and if he doesn't, he's littering his résumé with top-5s and top-10s in the Pacific time zone. Now, if things don't go his way in Phoenix, he will arrive at Pebble Beach marking the one-year anniversary since his last win. He also was a non-factor in the final three majors of 2012. Lefty has now gone 20 starts since his last win, and is 42 years old. As the kids would tweet: Just sayin'.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Grab your Breath-a-lyzers, golf fan. It's Phoenix Open time. In its traditional pre-Super Bowl slot, expect plenty of eyeballs on Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Padraig Harrington and new PGA Tour member Martin Kaymer amid the fraternity house roars of the 16th hole. I'd expect – and hope – the 16th hole crew has learned some German for clever foreign language chants dedicated to Kaymer.

As an avowed 49ers fan, though, my preference will be to the first golfer who "Kaepernicks" on the 16th green after making bird.

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