Tiger Woods opens strong at Chevron

THOUSANDS OAKS, Calif. -- In a year filled with so few highlights and plenty of shocking lowlights for Tiger Woods, it is wise to remember that Thursday's 7-under-par 65 was just one round of golf in an unofficial event among 18 players.

No sense getting all worked up when Woods has shown various flashes throughout his worst season as a pro, only to revert to the old bad habits that have maddeningly kept him from playing the kind of golf that had become so routine throughout his career.

But it seemed different at Sherwood Country Club during the first round of the Chevron World Challenge.

Woods equaled his lowest competitive round of the year; he made just a single bogey, on the last hole. He hit 16 of 18 greens, and really missed just two drives. He leads Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell by a stroke.

"He's just got that sound back," said Steve Stricker, his friend and playing partner during the first round. "He's hitting it solid, he's really compressing the ball a lot."

Stricker last played with Woods at the Ryder Cup in Wales two months ago and noticed a difference, however subtle it might be, the vagaries of the golf swing being so complex.

But Woods' work with swing coach Sean Foley is beginning to pay off, perhaps sooner than expected.

"When I initially read [Woods saying] 18 months or two years to make the swing change, I thought, 'Wow,'" said Foley, who has also been working with students Sean O'Hair and Hunter Mahan at Sherwood.

"I believe that Sean and Hunter and those guys ... I'd have been fired by that point. When you're looking at the greatest player of all time, it should never take that long. I appreciate that you're creating new motor patterns ...

"A lot of what he's doing, if you looked at his swing with Hank [Haney] and with Butch [Harmon] and as a kid, there's still a lot of good pieces in those golf swings. It's not like you just start from scratch. All we're trying to do is just minimize the variables."

Woods, who underwent well-documented swing changes under the direction of Harmon and Haney, began working with Foley at the PGA Championship in August the week following his worst 72-hole tournament as a pro at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

Since then, progress has been steady. Two weeks later, he opened the Barclays with a 65, the only time he led a PGA Tour event all year. The next week he followed a lackluster first round with a 65 at the Deutsche Bank and was able to advance to the third leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs.

At the Ryder Cup, he was 9 under par through 15 holes in his final-day singles match against Europe's Francesco Molinari.

And at his last tournament, the Australian Masters, he played the final nine holes in 30, playing the last six holes in 6 under par.

"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."

Woods was on pace to shoot his lowest round since a third-round 62 at the 2009 BMW Championship -- his last victory on the PGA Tour -- until a bogey at the 18th hole.

His tee shot there was a stark reminder of the work still to be done -- "the old, residual patterns" -- a poor swing that led to his only bogey of the day.

"He knows what he's doing now," said Mahan, who has worked with Foley for two years and has been a frequent practice round partner with Woods. "Before, hearing him talk and hearing what he was trying to do ... it was just wrong. The best player in the world, the most accomplished player in the world, guy who works harder than anybody ... But he can't overcome a wrong theory."

That would be a reference to Haney, with whom Woods parted ways in May after six years.

It should be noted that under Haney's direction, Woods won six major championships and 31 PGA Tour titles since the beginning of 2005.

Whatever the case, Woods said "it just wasn't working anymore, and it got to the point where I just couldn't do it. It's kind of hard to try and play tournament-level golf, major championship golf especially, when at the time I was struggling with which way the ball was going to go. That's not fun."

On Thursday, Woods actually twirled his club after impact -- the signature signal that he is happy with the shot just hit.

When it was suggested that Woods has not done that often this year, he was quick to agree.

"I have not," he said with a smile. "Usually, it's point which way the ball is going to go, incoming somewhere."

Not on this day, at least.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.