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Golf world slightly different for Woods return

Tiger Woods does not play golf with a ring on his finger.

That was the answer to the first question about how things might be different in his first tournament as a married man.

But the biggest change was more subtle.

Woods began his pro-am round at the Tour Championship on the 10th tee. He usually is the first one off on the first tee, a perk he has been afforded the last five years. But the first tee was occupied Tuesday by Vijay Singh, who is firmly entrenched at No. 1 in the world.

Then, Woods had to wait for Singh to finish his interview before he could step to the microphone.

And once Woods finished talking about his three-week honeymoon on a 150-foot yacht in the Caribbean, he was bombarded with questions about Singh -- just like so many other players who for years grew weary talking about Woods.

``He's played some just unbelievable golf this year,'' Woods said. ``For him to play as much as he does and still maintain that edge, and as much as he practices, it's pretty impressive to do all that.''

Woods still has eight majors. He is the only professional to hold all four major championship trophies at the same time. He has won more tournaments than anyone else still playing.

But he now is just one of the 31 players at the Tour Championship trying to end his year on a good note. Children still ran after him for his autograph when he arrived at East Lake. He still had more people in his gallery than any other players. If television ratings go up this week, Woods will be the reason.

Still, he now looks like one of the guys -- and not just because he's married.

``The fear factor is gone,'' one caddie said on the practice range as he watched Woods warm up.

The last time Woods and Singh played together was outside Boston on Labor Day, when the 41-year-old Fijian won a thrilling back-nine duel in the Deutsche Bank Championship to end Woods' five-year reign at No. 1 in the world.

Since then, Woods had a disastrous pairing with Phil Mickelson and another losing record in the Ryder Cup. He barely made it through 72 holes of the American Express Championship with a back injury. And he got married Oct. 5 in Barbados to Swedish nanny Elin Nordegren.

And since becoming No. 1 in the world, Singh has won three times and was runner-up in his other PGA Tour start.

It reminds Woods of the last time someone else was No. 1 in the world -- David Duval, who won 11 times in 18 months and became the first man to shoot 59 in the final round of a PGA Tour event.

``Everybody has a run,'' Woods said. ``I had one. Duval had one. Johnny Miller, (Jack) Nicklaus, (Tom) Watson, everyone has their run. It's just a matter of how long can you continue. Fortunately for me, I lasted five years.''

The question is how long Singh can keep this up -- and whether Woods can come back.

Woods had such a good time in the Caribbean that he skipped Disney for the first time since turning pro, and he nearly called it a year by not playing in the Tour Championship.

Let's see -- he's on a private yacht with his Swedish bride, with no one to bother him but the U.S. Coast Guard. Why even bother coming back for one tournament?

``Trust me,'' Woods said with a big grin. ``That thought went through my head a lot of times.''

Eventually, the honeymoon has to end.

``I miss competing,'' Woods said. ``That's what I love to do.''

He hasn't been shown much love in return.

Woods' only victory this year is the Accenture Match Play Championship at La Costa at the end of February. His drought in the majors is 10 and counting. He is No. 3 in the world ranking, No. 4 on the money list.

But even on the open sea, Woods still found room for golf.

``When I was on the boat, I was actually thinking about my game quite a bit and organizing my 'To Do' list -- what causes what in the golf swing, and basically prioritizing what I needed to work on,'' Woods said.

He thought his game was close before he got married.

Woods was runner-up at Firestone to Stewart Cink. He was runner-up to Singh at Deutsche Bank. He was going for his third straight title in the American Express Championship until injuring his back.

``I was so excited when I got over there, and then I couldn't move,'' Woods said. ``I thought that the way I played in finishing ninth there, with limited ability to play the game, I thought I had a chance to come back and do some pretty good things.''

Woods has been saying all year his game is close, and not many believed him. Count Masters champion Phil Mickelson among those who do. Lefty came off his worst year on Tour by winning his first major and coming within five shots of winning all four of them.

``I got re-motivated, excited about working hard, came out and had a wonderful year,'' Mickelson said. ``And I think that Tiger is going to do the same thing. I expect him to be the dominant force that he's been in the past.''

This being the present, about all Woods can do at East Lake is end a weak year on a strong note.

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