(Eds: With AP Photos.)By DOUG FERGUSONAP Golf Writer
Bill Murray stumbled into the back of a crowded conference room Tuesday just as Tiger Woods was wrapping up his press conference at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. The ”Caddyshack” star looked more confused than usual.
”Where’s the other guy?” Murray asked.
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Murray, as it turned out, was an hour late.
He was supposed to be at the interview table with D.A. Points, his partner last year when they won the pro-am, and perhaps the most overlooked defending champion at a PGA Tour event since Nick Price at Colonial in 2003.
”I got here and I got the program and I looked at the tickets and I thought, `Wait a minute. Didn’t I win?”’ Points said. ”And there are pictures of Bill everywhere. I’m driving down the highway, I see a billboard. There’s Bill. There’s Tiger. I’m like, `Where am I?”’
It’s the only PGA Tour event Points has won, so he was a little bummed at the oversight.
But he gets it.
”The celebrities obviously make this event larger-than-life sometimes,” he said.
That’s the effect Woods has this week at Pebble Beach.
It’s not unusual for him to start a PGA Tour season along the Pacific coast, though it’s usually at Torrey Pines. And there is a certain magic about Woods and Pebble Beach, which has been a big part of his career even though he has won only twice, both in the same year.
The first was the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, and it’s a timely memory considering the last two weeks have featured wild comebacks and ugly meltdowns. Brandt Snedeker came from seven shots behind at Torrey Pines to beat Kyle Stanley, who made triple bogey on the final hole; then Stanley came from eight shots back and won in Phoenix after Spencer Levin shot 75.
Woods was seven shots out of the lead with seven holes to play in 2000, and still looked to have no chance until he holed a wedge for eagle on the 15th, nearly holed another shot on the 16th and beat a fast-fading Matt Gogel.
”I was just trying to somehow get in it,” Woods recalled. ”All of a sudden, boom! Three shots, two holes, I’m back in the ball game.”
It was even more significant because that was his sixth consecutive PGA Tour win.
Then came the greatest single feat of his career that summer in the U.S. Open, a major where Woods was at the absolute apex of his game. On a course so difficult that no one else broke par, he shot 12-under 272 and won by 15 shots.
Now, the mystique has given way to curiosity.
Woods still draws the biggest crowd and drives attention in golf – Saturday’s round when the celebrities are at Pebble Beach was headed for its first sellout – but no one can be sure what to expect. There is unpredictability about Woods that wasn’t there before.
That, too, might be changing.
Woods began his 2012 season in Abu Dhabi, where he was tied for the lead going into the last day and was outplayed by Robert Rock. What some might see as more evidence that Woods can no longer be the player he was, Woods sees as real progress.
His golf – and his life – has been a series of stops and starts since his last tour win at the 2009 Australian Masters, right before his personal life came crashing down.
The divorce. The new swing coach. The injuries. The new caddie.
Woods had to adjust to a new lifestyle as a divorced father of two children, but equally time-consuming was the recovery from injuries. He finally got that sorted out late last summer, and then he missed two months because he was ineligible for the FedEx Cup playoffs.
His game has been trending up over the last few months.
Woods took the 36-hole lead in the Australian Open and finished third. He was among the best players on the U.S. team at Royal Melbourne in the Presidents Cup. Then, he ended a two-year drought by winning at Sherwood with birdies on the last two holes.
He was starting to warm up. He stopped for a winter break.
And then in Abu Dhabi, while he didn’t win, he was right back where he left off – contending.
”I think that’s what’s exciting,” Woods said. ”Because before …. I didn’t go into those breaks feeling good about where my game was. I was still making changes, still trying to get healthy. It was never really there. This time was different. I went into it healthy, went into it playing well, and then was able to build on it over the break.
”Took two weeks off after the World Challenge, didn’t touch a club, and then after that got right back into it and boom – almost won a tournament,” he said. ”So things are progressing.”
His last time at Pebble Beach was for the 2010 U.S. Open, when he made a late charge Saturday afternoon to pull within five shots and get into the second-to-last group. He bogeyed five of the opening 10 holes, shot 75 and was never a factor.
This tournament is different.
Woods stopped playing the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am for a number of reasons – Poppy Hills (since replaced by the Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula), the six-hour rounds (the field has since been reduced from 180 players to 156) and bumpy greens from so much play that he felt it affected confidence in his putting stroke.
Except for that amazing comeback in 2000, Woods had only one other close call. That was in 1997, when he finished one shot behind Mark O’Meara.
But it’s not about the course this week. And it’s not about the greens, which Woods putts better than most players. It’s about his game, and whether he can get it to where he can contend anywhere against anybody.
”I feel very much at peace where I’m at,” Woods said. ”I had to make some changes, and that took time, and I’m starting to see the results of that now, which is great. Everything is headed in the right direction.”