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Tiger reflects on a sub standard season

The year wasn't all bad for Tiger Woods. He won another World Golf Championship. He married a beautiful Swede and sailed off on his 155-foot yacht. And with top 10s in all but five of the tournaments he played, Woods earned more than $5.3 million. What he lost was his mystique.

Just about everything Woods had built up over five years was gone when the season ended Sunday at East Lake.

Vijay Singh took the No. 1 ranking away from him.

Phil Mickelson replaced him as the man to beat in the majors.

And in the final PGA Tour event of the year, Retief Goosen muddied Woods' reputation as golf's best closer by turning a four-shot deficit into a four-shot victory at the Tour Championship.

"It was a very successful week as far as progressing in the right direction," Woods said. "But ultimately, it was disappointing because I lost the tournament, especially when I had a golden opportunity to win."

Woods once measured success by green jackets and claret jugs.

Now, he celebrates progress.

There was a feeling when Woods narrowly beat out Singh as PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2003 that he had survived his stiffest challenge and would respond by restoring dominance to his game.

Instead, he decided to revamp his swing, which remains a work in progress.

"I figured I had something better within me, so I decided to make a change," Woods said. "And here I am."

Exactly where that is depends on perspective, although Woods is nowhere near where anyone imagined at the start of the season.

-- He is No. 2 in the world, moving up one spot by finishing second at East Lake.

-- He is No. 4 on the money list, his lowest position in six years.

-- He has gone 20 stroke-play tournaments without a victory, his longest drought ever.

-- He has gone 10 majors without winning, matching his longest winless streak in the Grand Slam events.

And the 28-year-old Woods seems to be the only guy not too worried about it.

"You have to understand that there are risks to getting better," Woods said. "I've always taken risks to try and become a better golfer, and that's one of the things that's gotten me as far as I have."

Woods first overhauled his swing after winning the '97 Masters by a record 12 shots. It took him about 18 months to piece everything together with coach Butch Harmon, and the finished product was frightening. He won seven of 11 majors, and 32 times on the PGA Tour during an incredible five-year run.

He was No. 1 in the world by such a monstrous margin that it looked as if he would stay there for life.

Having split up with Harmon, Woods is making his latest changes with Dallas-based swing coach Hank Haney, whom he met through good friend Mark O'Meara.

Exactly what he is changing is not clear. Woods is so protective of his game that he won't say, and he often has his caddie block photographers from getting swing-sequence pictures.

Scrutiny is what made this a tougher year than 1998.

"I was still new back in '97 and '98," he said. "What I did at Augusta was just one week. And then I had that run there for about five years ... and now I've been questioned about it each and every round I've played this year. It's been a lot more frustrating that way because I've had to answer all those questions."

There were early indications that Woods was headed for an ordinary season.

He was charging on the back nine at Torrey Pines in February, two shots behind with the leaders fading fast. Then he missed four straight fairways, took two bogeys and wound up two shots out of a playoff. Going for his fourth straight win at Bay Hill, he wound up tied for 46th, his worst finish of the year.

Then came the real shockers.

Woods had gone five years without losing a 36-hole lead. He did it twice on back-to-back weekends in May. The final blow came Sunday at East Lake -- only the third time he has lost a 54-hole lead -- and it was symbolic of his season.

Woods was tied with Goosen with six holes to play when the South African holed a 35-foot birdie putt on the 13th, got up-and-down for birdie on the 15th, then hit a 5-iron from 195 yards out of the rough into 3 feet for the only birdie of the day on the 16th.

There was a time when Woods was the guy making the timely birdies, leaving everyone else to believe they had to play perfect golf to catch him. They usually wound up with bogeys, making Woods' victories look easy.

It was role reversal at East Lake.

Desperate to stay close to the lead, Woods rammed a 25-footer some 6 feet past the cup and missed that one for a three-putt bogey on No. 16 that effectively ended his chances. For good measure, he bogeyed the 17th, too.

Perhaps that alone sums up his year.

In a league of his own for five years, Woods finally looks like everyone else.

"If he wants that title back, he's got a lot of work to do," six-time major winner Nick Faldo said.

Woods does not see this as the end.

He leaves for South Korea later in the week for a one-day Skins competition that includes Se Ri Pak. He is playing the Dunlop Phoenix next week in Japan. Then he plays the Skins Game (featuring Annika Sorenstam) and his own Target World Challenge.

Winning them all won't change anyone's perception.

All he can hope for now is progress.

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