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Progress for Tiger, but still a long way to go

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Progress for Tiger, but still a long way to go

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) Ian Poulter finished his final round at the World Challenge and was chatting next to the clubhouse at Sherwood when he stopped in the middle of a sentence and changed his tone to one of grave concern.

``What is Tiger doing in a buggy?'' he said.

His eyes were fixed on a large video board down the hill and across the 18th fairway that showed Tiger Woods being driven away from the green in the back of a golf cart. The scene was eerily reminiscent to the start of the season at Doral, when Woods withdrew in the middle of the final round because of swelling to his left Achilles tendon.

Moments later, Poulter realized this merely was the shuttle that took players to the 14th tee at the top of a steep hill.

Exhale.

``I was like, `Hang on a minute.' I thought he might have slipped down a bank and done himself in,'' Poulter said.

All things considered, it was a reasonable rush to judgment.

Woods has endured some strange seasons during the last few years, and this would qualify as one of them.

Go back to that Sunday afternoon at Doral when Woods was taken off the course in a cart, and the TV shot from a helicopter that showed him driving away in what might as well have been a white Bronco. It raised questions about whether he could ever be the dominant player he once had been.

And then he won his very next tournament at Bay Hill, his first PGA Tour title in more than two years.

Woods' mystique looked as if it might be returning when, at one tournament (Memorial), he faced an impossible shot and chipped in for birdie that carried him to victory. In another, he was on the ropes late in the final round until his challenger threw away a chance to beat him (Bo Van Pelt at the AT&T National).

Then there were the majors.

Woods had at least a share of the 36-hole lead in the U.S. Open and PGA Championship. Not only did he fail to win, he didn't even finish in the top 10.

For years, Woods said it could not be a great year without winning a major, and he still believes that. Throw in some extenuating circumstances, such as his physical health, and he considers 2012 to be a ``pretty good accomplishment.''

He won three times, which would have been considered a down year against his old standard.

So where is he now?

In about the same spot he was in this time a year ago, only for different reasons.

Going into 2012, what appeared to be holding him back from being the dominant player was his own game. Going into 2013, he doesn't look like the dominant player because of someone else - Rory McIlroy.

McIlroy was voted PGA Tour player of the year Tuesday, presumably by the kind of margin that routinely once belonged to Woods. McIlroy won a tour-high four tournaments, including a major, the money list and the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average. That's a dominant year.

There have been 11 changes among four players at No. 1 in the world since Woods abandoned the spot toward the end of the 2010 season, and it has looked like a game of musical chairs. That's no longer the case. McIlroy found another gear in August, and he now has the largest margin in the ranking since the glory days of Woods.

The player Woods is trying to beat has that beautiful blend of balance and power, and he can putt. That's tough to beat. Plus, McIlroy is still only 23 and doesn't have four knee surgeries behind him.

Then again, there has never been another player like Woods in the modern game, so he can't be ruled out.

Jack Nicklaus set the standard with 18 majors, the record Woods is trying to catch. Not even Nicklaus won as prolifically as Woods at this stage in their careers, however, which is why it's foolish to write off Woods - not only in his pursuit of Nicklaus in the record book, but of McIlroy on the golf course.

Woods still points to his health, and he is quick to note that this was his first full season since 2009 (even that one didn't start until Match Play in late February because he was coming off major knee surgery).

``I still feel I have some of my best golf to play, and in order to do that, I had to be healthy, and this year is headed in the right direction,'' Woods said. ``I'm very excited about next year. Rory is ranked No.1. He deserves it. He's won tournaments all around the world. He's had high finishes on top of that, and that's how you do it. ... He should be very proud of the season he's had, and I'm sure he's excited about what next year holds for him, as well.''

Woods finished his season with five straight finishes in the top 10, his longest streak since the spring of 2009, though he didn't win. He planned to put the golf clubs away until after Christmas, except for messing around with his son, Charlie.

The list of improvements is a lot shorter than it was at this time a year ago.

``It's not a laundry list like it was the last couple years,'' Woods said. ``I've already made the big changes. They're already in. It's the little tweaks here and there.''

But the question remains:

If Woods and McIlroy face each other down the stretch, where is your money? That used to be easy to answer no matter who was challenging Woods.

It's a question U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson wasn't willing to tackle.

``I'm not going to pick because obviously you've got the greatest player of all time versus the guy who's playing better than anybody in our sport,'' Simpson said. ``What Rory has done this year is remarkable. ... But again, to choose a player over Tiger would be tough given what he's done.''

Perhaps a clearer answer will be revealed in 2013. Woods and McIlroy both start the new season Jan. 17 in Abu Dhabi.

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Five observations from Redskins preseason victory over the Jets

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Five observations from Redskins preseason victory over the Jets

Here are my five key observations from the Redskins’ 15-13 preseason win over the Jets.

— It was good that the offense clicked well in the series that Alex Smith was in the game. He was a crisp four of six for 48 yards. It wasn’t good that they couldn’t get the ball into the end zone and that Smith exited after that one series. I know there were concerns about Geron Christian being at left tackle instead of Trent Williams and Smith did get hit pretty hard on the first snap of the game. But after the starting offense sat out the preseason opener I think they needed to go for another series or two.

— The starting defense was in for two series with mixed results. The first Jets possession ended with a three and out with Daron Payne getting a third-down sack to close out the series. The second time, however, Sam Darnold like a drive that covered 42 yards and resulted in a field goal. The rookie completed passes for 13, six, 11, nine and six yards in the drive and looking every bit like the phenom that Josh Norman talked about in Richmond this week. The starting defense was good against the run, allowing 13 yards on six carries in the two drives.

— It looked like WR Cam Sims’ roster bubble was about to burst in the second quarter when he had a Colt McCoy pass in his arms in the red zone with no defender within a couple of yards of him. But the ball popped up in the air and the Jets’ Doug Middleton accepted the gift interception. But later on, he caught a key third down pass between two defenders. In that same drive he made another catch surrounded by defenders and he held onto it when he hit the ground hard. But the touchdown was called back by an illegal formation penalty. Then on the next to the last play of the game, his 20-yard reception set up the game-winning field goal.

— Tim Settle continues to impress. For a couple of drives in the second quarter the Jets’ offensive starters were up against the Redskins’ second-team defense, including Settle. The rookie manhandled former Redskins center Spencer Long on a few snaps and beat some double teams as well. Settle didn’t just impress against the run. He got a couple of pressures on Darnold and nearly got a sack. They will have to find snaps for him in the rotation if he keeps this up.

— The final word here is on playing time. For the most part, the Jets’ starters played the first half. For the Redskins it was one series for the offense and two for the defense. I have to wonder how ready this team with a new quarterback under center will perform coming out of the gate. They will be playing with fire if they don’t sweep their first two games against the Cardinals and Colts. Gruden is 0-4 in season openers as the Redskins coach. I have to say that I’m skeptical that his method of preparing the team for Week 1 will work.

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Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS and on Instagram @RichTandler.

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Instant analysis: 5 field goals lift Redskins past Jets

Instant analysis: 5 field goals lift Redskins past Jets

LANDOVER, MD — Here is my instant analysis of the Redskins’ 15-13 preseason win over the New York Jets.

— Alex Smith started the game and so did most of the other players who are expected to start Week 1. Rob Kelley was at running back, Josh Doctson and Paul Richardson lined up at receiver, and the offensive line was intact — with the exception of Geron Christian playing left tackle. Vernon Davis was the tight end. 

— Smith moved the team efficiently on the first drive, completing four of six passes for 48 yards. He converted one third-and-9 by finding Doctson in a big soft spot in the Jets’ zone for 11 yards. On third-and-goal at the 4, he threw a pass a little behind Trey Quinn; it was catchable but not easy and Quinn couldn’t handle it. A field goal made it 3-0. After that 11-play, 71-yard drive, Smith and most of the rest of the offensive starters left the game. 

— Ten of the 11 regular defenders started the game, the exception being Matt Ioannidis. In his first series in a Redskins uniform, Daron Payne stopped the drive with a sack on third down. After that three-and-out, they weren’t as effective against Sam Darnold on their second possession. The rookie was sharp leading a 12-play, 42-yard field goal drive. 

— The first time Samaje Perine touched the ball, he ran for 30 yards off left tackle, following a nice block from J.P. Holtz, a tight end who was lined up at fullback. Since they released the only fullback on the roster last week, TE as FB is likely to be the plan. Perine then left the game with an ankle injury. He did not return. 

— There were some special teams gaffes in the first half. Dustin Hopkins hit the right upright on a 35-yard field goal try but it went through. On the ensuing kickoff, though, the kick went out of bounds. Later on, Byron Marshall put the ball on the ground on a kickoff return but replay showed it that he was down. So there was one costly miscue and two near-misses. 

— The Redskins backup defensive unit was back on its heels in a second-quarter drive with most of the Jets’ offensive starters in. They ended the drive when Danny Johnson make a good tackle to force a third and one. The Jets went for it and Darnold’s pass was tipped by Deshazor Everett and intercepted by Troy Apke. Tim Settle dominated in the middle, usually matched up against former Redskins center Spencer Long. 

— It was bad news, then good news for rookie WR Cam Sims in the second quarter. First he had a pass in his hands for a first down in the red zone but the ball popped out without him being touched and the pass was picked off. On the Redskins’ next possession he made a nice catch between two defenders for a 27-yard gain on third-and-10. Later in the drive he made a leaping catch in the end zone, but a penalty negated the TD. He has been inconsistent in practice in Richmond and is carrying over. 

— The Redskins had some red zone woes in the first half. The had three shots from there and settled for field goals every time. They also had the situation where Sims had the pass in his hands in the red zone before it popped out for an interception. 

— Long shot Martez Carter got his name on the board with a runs of nine and then 30 yards, showing blazing speed around the corner on both runs. He remains a long shot but speed like that will get you some attention. 

— Third QB Kevin Hogan was able to lead a scoring drive on his first possession but it was done mostly via Carter’s runs and the first application of the new helmet rule in a Redskins’ game this preseason, a flag that went against the Jets. The next two possessions he went two for three for seven yards and the Redskins went three and out both times. 

— The Jets kicked a late field goal to take a 13-12 lead. Hogan had a chance to bring them back and got them into Jets territory. Then Cam Sims made a 20-yard grab to set up a 40-yard field goal attempt. Hopkins hit it as time ran out to give the home team a 15-13 lead. 

— The win doesn’t mean anything but it’s always more fun to win than to lose. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS and on Instagram @RichTandler