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Woods at Full Stride Early in Season

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- Tiger Woods will have played only five tournaments by the time the Masters arrives, his lightest workload ever going into the first major of the year.
That hardly seems to be a problem.
Three weeks into his return from knee surgery, Woods already has hit full stride.
He won the Buick Invitational by four strokes after three straight rounds in the 60s on the tough South Course at Torrey Pines, a future U.S. Open site. He lost only 18 of the 112 holes he played at La Costa to win the Match Play Championship.
``When he plays good, he wins,'' David Toms said. ``We all know that.''
Woods expected no less.
After building a big lead and holding off a late charge by Toms on Sunday to complete his collection of the World Golf Championships titles, Woods was asked if he could have imagined two victories this early in his season.
``Uh-huh,'' he said without blinking.
Woods was still thinking about the tee shot he hooked into the parking lot in the third round of the Nissan Open. He made double bogey on the easiest hole at Riviera, and wound up three strokes out of a playoff.
Asked whether he was satisfied with his three weeks in California, Woods said: ``As a whole, you have to say, 'Yes.' But if you want to be a little bit greedy ...
``I've accomplished my goal two out of three weeks.''
The tournament that matters the most is a month away at Augusta National, where Woods will try to become the first player to win three straight Masters.
The last two years, Woods played six tournaments before his first victory of the season. He hasn't won twice on the West Coast since 2000, when Woods went on to one of the greatest seasons in golf with nine victories and three straight majors.
Is another record-breaking year in the works?
``You can expect me to keep trying to get better ' if my year turns out like 2000,'' Woods said. ``I'm starting to feel good. There's no doubt about it.''
His 2000 season didn't happen overnight. Woods won four straight PGA Tour events at the end of the 1999 season and carried that into the next year.
This time, he traces his groove to the PGA Grand Slam in Hawaii in November, when he won by 14 strokes in a 36-hole event against Ernie Els, Rich Beem and Davis Love III.
He says Dec. 12 surgery on his left knee not only got rid of the pain, but enabled him to start swinging the club the way he did.
``I have more shots than I did last year,'' he said. ``And on top of that, I'm feeling a lot better, which allows me to hit more shots. So, the combination of the two makes me a better player than I was last year.''
Some of those shots were evident at La Costa, particularly the 3-wood he kept low and hard into the wind and a variety of three-quarter shots that kept the ball from spinning away from the hole on the soft, spongy greens.
``He's swinging at the ball as good as I've seen him swing in a while,'' Toms said. ``He was hitting one or two more clubs than he normally would and just chipping it in there. And to be able to hit those shots shows a lot about how his game has progressed.''
In the five years of the Accenture Match Play Championship, no winner has ever played so few holes. Woods only played the 18th hole twice all week, one of those times during the 36-hole final against Toms.
Even so, he had to grind for this one.
Woods didn't miss a fairway until the 11th hole and raced to a 4-up advantage over Toms, which seemed to be insurmountable.
But Toms seized momentum with a 35-foot birdie putt on the second hole in the afternoon round, and Woods started missing putts that had been so routine.
``He was missing some short putts, and I think that was probably getting to him more than my game was getting to him,'' Toms said. ``He probably was disappointed that he was beating himself for a little while.''
Woods never trailed during the match, and Toms finally ran out of holes.
``I had to play the best golfer in the world to try to win the tournament, and I didn't have much this morning,'' Toms said. ``I got down too far to come back.''
The gap between Woods and his competition appeared to shrink during his two-month absence after knee surgery.
Ernie Els won the first two PGA Tour events in Hawaii, and piled up four victories in his first five events around the world. Vijay Singh won in Phoenix, Davis Love III won at Pebble Beach, and Mike Weir of Canada won twice (Bob Hope Classic, Nissan Open).
Now, it looks like a gulf again.
Woods now has 36 career victories on the PGA Tour, and he became the first player to win all four of the World Golf Championships events, which started in 1999. Including the World Cup title he won with David Duval in 2000, Woods has won seven of 13 world titles.
The next stop for Woods is the Bay Hill Invitational in two weeks, a tournament he has won the last three years.
``I'm just glad he doesn't play 25 tournaments,'' Toms said.