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Tiger Woods returns for 10th professional season

Even after 10 years defined by his 10 major championships, there are times when Tiger Woods still feels as though he has something to prove.

The chill of a Pacific breeze was in his face Tuesday morning when he reached his ball in the sixth fairway, seemingly too far away to reach the green.

"No chance to get there?" he said to his caddie.

Steve Williams shrugged his shoulders and told him it was 275 yards to the front of the green, a long way considering the wind and temperature in the 50s that keeps the ball from traveling as far.

"Let me show you my stuff," Woods said with a smile, grabbing a driver from the bag.

He ripped a low, piercing shot that held its line until tumbling into the first cut of rough, a few yards short of the green. And this brought another smile.

"That," he said, "was pure."

There were few signs of rust for Woods, who makes his 2006 debut at the Buick Invitational after taking the second-longest break of his career.

He missed two months because of knee surgery at the end of the 2002 season, returning at the Buick Invitational and winning by four shots. He took six weeks off this time, a self-imposed break to recover from a long year in which he spent more time on the range trying to refine his swing.

More than just the six weeks, Woods made it a point not to touch a club until the calendar changed.

"Once the new year came around and I started to realize I only had a couple more weeks to prepare, to start getting ready, then my mind kind of switched over," Woods said. "Before that, I basically had made a decision not to touch a club until the following year."

He spent four days skiing, and the rest of December in southern California to be near his father, who is fighting a losing battle with cancer. Woods said only that Earl Woods was "hanging in there."

Woods is the defending champion at Torrey Pines, where the field isn't as strong as it was a year ago. Only three of the top 10 players from the world ranking are at the Buick Invitational, the others being Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia. Ernie Els is making his '06 debut at the Qatar Masters, joined by Vijay Singh.

Woods and Garcia, not the best of friends, will be grouped with Stuart Appleby the first two rounds, starting Thursday on the shorter, easier North Course at Torrey Pines that plays about three strokes easier than the South Course, site of the 2008 U.S. Open.

Tiger Woods follows through on his second shot with the Pacific Ocean behind him on the fourth hole on the South Course at Torrey Pines during the Pro-Am at the Buick Invitational Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006 in San Diego.
AP - Jan 25, 1:07 pm EST
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"I can't wait to get out there and compete," Woods said. "I've missed the competition. I've missed the rush of trying to shoot low numbers and win tournaments."

A year ago, the Buick Invitational was a launching pad.

Woods had not won a stroke-play event on the PGA Tour in 16 months when he took advantage of late mistakes by Tom Lehman and Luke Donald, to win by three shots. Swing changes with Hank Haney kept rounding into form, and Woods went on to win the Masters, British Open and two World Golf Championships.

Woods said there is still room to improve, although he is much farther along than he was last year.

"I don't have as far to go to get ready for the Masters this year," he said. "Last year, I had a long way to go. I had a lot of different things I needed to fix to be ready for Augusta. This year, it's not as many. The list is a lot shorter, and the changes aren't as big.

"From that standpoint, I've got a head start on last year."

There are other changes outside of golf. The Tiger Woods Learning Center, an after-school project for kids in the Anaheim area, will have its grand opening Feb. 10. And he recently completed a $38 million purchase of a 10-acre property in south Florida that stretches from the Intracoastal Waterway to the Atlantic Ocean.

Woods didn't say when he would move from Orlando, Fla., or where he would play, although he has an invitation from Jack Nicklaus to the exclusive Bear's Club.

"I told Tiger that he is more than welcome," Nicklaus said. "He may choose to come to The Bear's Club, and he may choose not to come here ... may not want to feel like he's imposing on my situation while he's trying to break my record. He's certainly been invited."

Woods said he likely would keep a house or villa at Isleworth, a course that he said was ideal for major preparations.

And that's ultimately what matters to him this year, just like always.

"Hopefully, I can put together some wins and have a more successful season than I did last year," he said.

Torrey Pines has been friendly to him over the years.

Woods and Mickelson are the only three-time winners of the Buick Invitational, and Woods' worst finish in this tournament was a tie for 10th in 2004, when he missed a playoff by two shots.

"I've been playing here since I was 12," Woods said. "I've had some success here even in the junior ranks. The golf course just suits my eye."

Mickelson, who grew up in San Diego, has been playing it even longer, and still likes to sneak out with the public, although that hasn't happened in a few years.

"I think Torrey Pines South is the hardest golf course I've ever played day in and day out," Mickelson said.



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