Tiger Woods on verge of Chevron win

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The man on the receiving end of all of the questions had one of his own.

When was the last time someone won PGA Tour player of the year without capturing a major championship in the same season?

Tiger Woods was curious Saturday afternoon after learning that Jim Furyk had snagged this year's honor.

Uh, well ... that would be you, Tiger.

Just last year.

Of course, it's been the longest year of his life, and Woods could be excused for getting things a bit mixed up.

After all, he's captured the honor 10 times in his career, the last time coming when he won six PGA Tour events, although none was a major championship.

That was a long time ago in Woods' world, one that took a nasty personal turn that led to a prolonged absence from golf and his worst season as a professional.

Now he's seemingly headed in the right direction again golf-wise after a 4-under-par 68 at Sherwood Country Club allowed him to keep a 4-stroke advantage over U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell at the Chevron World Championship.

Although this is an unofficial event and would not count on his PGA Tour total of victories, a win of any kind at this point would be significant.

"It would be nice," said Woods, who has won this tournament four times, the last in 2007 -- which was the last time he played it. "I've got 18 mores holes and it's a process. ... I'm excited. I'm excited to go out there and go head-to-head against Graeme."

The focus for most of the past three months has been the golf swing, and understandably so.

Woods was making a significant change, one he admitted he was unsure he wanted to undertake under instructor Sean Foley. The results might not always be pretty, the first winless year of his professional career offering more questions than answers.

Somewhat buried beneath swing planes and theories has been the fact that it has been a long time since Woods has even contended to win a tournament.

Sure, we know he hasn't won since the 2009 Australian Masters with his last PGA Tour victory coming at the 2009 BMW Championship.

This year, he's rarely been in the hunt at all.

That changed this week at the annual tournament that benefits his foundation.

His 68 was his worst of the tournament -- a third straight round in the 60s -- and put himself in a spot from which he has never failed to deliver: Woods is 28 for 28 around the world in tournaments in which he has at least a 3-stroke lead heading into the final round.

"It does feel good, there's no doubt," Woods said. "I felt it was more important to make progression on what I was doing with Sean. Since the PGA [Championship at Whistling Straits], I've had incremental progress, little steppingstones along the way.

"The way I hit the ball the first day was the way I know I can hit the golf ball. I was booming it out there pretty good. I just kept control of all my shots."

This is Woods' first 54-hole lead anywhere in 377 days -- since he led after the third round of the Aussie Masters, where he went on to capture his 82nd worldwide victory.

Back then, of course, nobody expected the interruption to Woods' life and game.

After taking five months off and returning at the Masters, Woods' best finish on the PGA Tour was a tie for fourth at Augusta National and also the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. That was really the last time he contended.

Although Woods' best finish came three weeks ago in Australia when he finished fourth, he did so with a final-nine flurry.

"His short game and putting is outstanding, as always," said McDowell, who will be paired with Woods again during the final round. "He kept the ball under control. He barely missed a fairway. That's more like him really, of course.

"When the long clubs start misbehaving, that's when he gets into trouble. Today he controlled the ball well and his short game is obviously good."

McDowell has not been a frequent observer of Woods' game, but he did play with him for the first two rounds of the HSBC Champions in China last month.

He noticed a difference since then, one that appears to be building toward 2011.

"I'm excited about tomorrow because of the way I've been playing," Woods said. "I'm excited how I've been hitting the golf ball and how I've been managing my game around this golf course."

A positive result here in the past has led to good things for Woods. Each time he's won at Sherwood, he's followed up the next year with a major championship -- and PGA Tour player of the year.

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