Woods looks solid from start to (almost) finish

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — Here’s one sign that Tiger Woods is making big strides toward regaining his form. After one of his most complete rounds of the year at the Chevron World Challenge, all he mentioned on Twitter was his worst shot.

“Nice drive on 18,” he tweeted after opening with a 7-under 65.

It was hardly a thing of beauty.

Woods popped up his tee shot, tearing up some turf as the ball skied high and to the right before landing behind a tree less than 200 yards away. He really broke his wedge trying to escape, barely got onto the green and two-putted from 50 feet to escape with bogey.

That alone could have been a snapshot from a miserable year inside the ropes, where he has failed to win for the first time in his career and was rarely in contention.

Only on Thursday, that shot was the exception.

Woods was solid from start to … well, almost the finish. He made birdie on all the par 5s, missed only two greens in regulation, and despite making only one putt longer than 10 feet, wound up matching his best score of the year.

It gave him a one-shot lead over U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, only the second time Woods has been atop the leaderboard after any round this year, and the first time by himself.

“It’s like what I told you guys earlier in the week, it’s a process,” Woods said. “I was putting together streaks of holes earlier — two, three, four, five holes of this — and then I’d lose it for a little bit. Eventually, I needed to get to a full round and then eventually, a full tournament. And today was a full round, so that’s a good start.”

McDowell and McIlroy, the Northern Ireland duo who lost only one match at the Ryder Cup, would have been tough to beat in fourballs at Sherwood. They were paired together and would have had a best-ball score of 61. On their own, each settled for a 66.

“A lot of birdies out there between us,” McDowell said, and that includes a pair of eagles on the par-5 11th.

Dustin Johnson faltered on the back nine and shot a 69, along with Stewart Cink, who is trying out a new putter and a new putting grip with an eye toward 2011. Luke Donald and Camilo Villegas each had a 70, and no one else broke par.

McDowell is coming off the best year of his life, although no one would be surprised if he were running low on fuel. He has been all over the world for more than a month, from Shanghai to Dubai to California, and has been waking up at 3 a.m. to cope with jet lag.

“But I’ve got a little bit left in the tank this weekend,” he said. “I’m looking forward to some time off and some cold beers.”

Woods should have plenty left. This is only his 16th tournament in eight months, having had a late start to the year and qualifying for the Tour Championship. This will be his final event until Torrey Pines next year, but it’s hard to tell whether he is finishing a tough year or making an early imprint on the next season.

His caddie, Steve Williams, noticed a marked improvement from the last time Woods played in Australia, where he finished fourth.

However far along Woods is in his work with Sean Foley, he is not about to measure with numbers or grades or percentages. The best gauge might have been Thursday, for there was very little stress involved.

“It’s not too often you can say I shot 65 and only made one putt,” Woods said. “But that’s kind of what I did today. I only made one putt, and it was on 9. The rest were either two-putts or kick-ins. It was a good ball-striking day.”

There was that one great save from behind the 12th green, when he gouged a wedge out of thick grass and saw the ball catch a corner of the cup, causing him to fall backward onto the grass in disbelief.

He putted for eagle on four of the par 5s, and on the second hole, twirled the club. That used to be his signature move whenever he hit a pure shot. He hasn’t done much twirling this year.

“I have not,” Woods said. “Usually, it’s point which way the ball is going to go — incoming somewhere.”

Woods has won his tournament the past two times he played, missing in 2008 because of knee surgery and last year because of the crisis unfolding in his personal life.

Previous wins have put a ribbon on a great year. This might be different.

“If you play well, it does give you a shot of confidence,” Woods said. “I’ve played well in this event. I’ve won it a few times, and I’ve gone on to get off to quick starts the following year. Late in the season, a lot of guys are either traveling, not practicing or playing all over the globe. But for me, if I can end the year on a high note, it does give you a shot of confidence going into your practice sessions. Because you know what you were doing was working.”