THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Twenty-six and counting.
That’s how long it’s been through injury and enigmatic play, swing and address changes. For those scoring at home it’s been more than two years since Tiger Woods turned a Sunday opportunity into something special.
There’ve been close calls, most notably at this year’s Masters and last month’s Australian Open.
There has even been victory, technically, but no matter how rewarding his clinching point was two weeks ago at Royal Melbourne, the Presidents Cup doesn’t really split 12 ways.
So the question remains – and was magnified by his opening 69 at the Chevron World Challenge, a Santa Ana special that left him tied for second place and three strokes adrift of K.J. Choi – of all the things Woods has lost or misplaced through two trying years would he need to learn how to win again?
The last time he hoisted Sunday silver was at the 2009 Australian Masters. His PGA Tour slide dates even further back to the ‘09 BMW Championship, but in the context of rediscovering whatever gear made him great even that is a bit misleading.
At Cog Hill two years ago he began the final turn seven strokes clear of the field and cruised. The rebound triumph likely won’t be so effortless even with a swing that’s cut a hole through some of the most fierce winds from Sydney to Sherwood Country Club the last four weeks.
Woods will reckon it’s like riding a bike, having emerged from at least three swing overhauls in his career more dominant than before.
But this time feels different not because of the amount of time and tries that have elapsed since 2009 but because of the circumstances.
If any player knows the unique challenges of collapses and comebacks it is Steve Stricker, who has also spent more time between the ropes with Woods the last few years than anyone.
Stricker had the makings of singular, if not shy, talent early in his career. He won twice in 1996, but began battling a swing that had only one direction, left, and suffered through six cold years.
Following his victory at the 2001 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, Stricker went 190 starts before finally breaking through at the 2007 Barclays.
If slump busting were a science Stricker would have a PhD.
“First of all you doubt yourself if you can even do it again,” Stricker said. “You wonder if you’re ever going to put yourself back in that position again even though you’ve done if before, you know what it’s like to win. But you still have that doubt, especially if it’s been a long time since winning.
“And then to actually get yourself into contention to pull it off is the next step. It’s a challenge every step of the way, mentally and physically.”
Stricker is not one to offer unsolicited advice, but if he were he could have put on a clinic as he and Woods made their way around Sherwood on Thursday.
Since those post-2001 dark days Stricker has pocketed consecutive Comeback Player of the Year awards and won seven Tour titles in four seasons, including twice this year.
He could have told Woods, who has shown a fondness for Stricker ever since the duo went 4-0-0 in team play at the 2009 Presidents Cup, that the first victory after a long drought is the hardest, and most gratifying.
“It was way more rewarding, especially when you think you may never win again,” Stricker said of his Barclays breakthrough. “It was a huge weight lifted off you.”
If Woods were so inclined he could have quizzed Stricker on the emotions that are part and parcel of getting off the schneid. Woods may discover that winning 14 majors was running downhill by comparison.
“I put so much effort into trying to come back and win again,” Stricker said. “It was a joyous moment. You know where you’ve been, when you were playing well and then the bottom, it was really rewarding.”
It doesn’t seem likely that Woods’ drought will stretch to 190 starts, not the way he’s hitting the ball, not the way he lives for the moment. Nor does it seem possible that the process will be akin to reinventing the wheel.
Following his third-place finish at the Australian Open, a run that was marred by pedestrian putting and a Saturday lapse, Woods’ friend Notah Begay had a simple question: Did it feel any different?
“I told him I felt nothing,” Woods said. “And he says, ‘Good, because you’re not supposed to. You’re supposed to be normal. You’re supposed to be there.’
“I said, ‘Yeah, I know.’”
Follow the Chevron World Challenge on Golf Channel and NBC. Airtimes: Golf Channel, 3-6 PM Friday, 1-3 PM ET Saturday and Sunday. NBC, 3-6 PM ET Saturday and Sunday.