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Woods steadfast through thick and thin

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – On Saturday night, Tiger Woods was ringside in Las Vegas as boxing champ and Dancing with the Stars performer Floyd Mayweather Jr. maintained his position as the planet's top fighter.

Maybe he picked up a few tips.

As he addressed the golfing media on Tuesday, Woods, verbally at least, did a little dancing, a little sparring and effortlessly parried a sucker punch designed to catch him off guard.

Married life and fatherhood have given Woods a softer side away from the course. When he talks about approaching the special opportunity to pass on life lessons to five-month-old daughter Sam, it is with the relish he reserved for a putt for victory on the 72nd hole.

But when it is time for business, the nerve and composure that has taken him to 13 major victories is as steely and implacable as ever.

With the tournament he hosts, the Target World Challenge, at Sherwood Country Club this week, thoughts are already on the 2008 season and a fresh chance to gather trophies while tightening his stranglehold on the sport.

Despite the intrusion of a rogue television crew from a British dating program that tried to embarrass the world's No. 1, there was not a crack in his professional demeanor or a flicker of annoyance.

"Hi Tiger, my boyfriend is a big fan of yours, but he often calls your name out during sex," squealed a pile of mascara and cleavage from the third row. "Do you think he might be gay?"

"That's a very interesting question," replied Woods.

The conversation continued, with the woman making a suggestive comment about a golf club – too lewd for this online publication – and Woods giving a neutral answer.

"I think I should dump him and get back with my ex," the woman said of her "boyfriend" toward the end of her routine.

"I guess you have to figure that out," Woods said.

"I think I should meet someone new. Do you think I should join a dating Web site?"

With that, the woman and her camera crew were ordered to leave by tournament staff.

Immediately, the event's PR crew started fretting as to how annoyed Woods would have been by the exchange and how it might affect him.

Somehow, I don't think they need to worry.

Woods either uses things as motivation to take his seemingly indestructible golf game to higher levels or simply blocks them out of his mind. If more than a decade's worth of the best golfers in the world have failed to shake him out of his stride it will take more than a Spice Girl wannabe and her misguided humor to throw him off.

Less than an hour earlier, Steve Stricker, who will play alongside Woods in Thursday's opening round, had spoken about how coming close to victory in the U.S. and British Opens last summer had provided him with extra motivation.

Woods is different in that he can draw upon anything to give him an edge. Winning, losing, parenthood, and even the death of his remarkable and inspirational father Earl, have all served to spur him on.

Whether they admit it or not, the best of the rest know that if Woods hits anything close to his best form, they are playing for second place.

Whether it is an invitational event with a charitable element like this week's (all of Woods' winnings will go to his foundation) or the Masters.

Whether he is tired from a grueling schedule of events, or relaxed after a thin program in 2007 aimed at spending more time with wife Elin and their daughter.

"I've been away from the game, got away from it," said Woods, who has been quiet since winning the inaugural FedEx Cup in September. "The mental benefits are that you feel fresh and ready to go. It was nice to actually shut down and not have to work."

Woods has an aura as powerful as anyone in sports. There is little in the way of witty repartee and he is not naturally charismatic, but it is impossible not to be impressed with the man. That aura creates a barrier between him and his opponents, even the elite of the game such as Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, Stricker and Padraig Harrington – all competing for the $1.35 million prize this week.

It is one thing to look at yourself in the mirror and say "I know I can beat this guy." But when "that guy" has changed the face of the sport and was ensconced as an all-time great before his 30th birthday, how hard must it be to really believe it?

If Woods sets down a marker for 2008 this weekend by winning his event for the fourth time, it will get that much harder.

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