While he was putting the finishing touches on another season for the ages this past weekend, Tiger Woods was asked if there was one shot this year that was more satisfying than any other.
We're talking about a guy who won 11 of 21 tournaments this year, including two majors in a season that he personally regards as his best ever. Better, even, than 2000, which until now has been considered the benchmark for excellence.
His best shot? Woods identified it right away.
"There were a series of shots, but they weren't in competition," he said. "It was on the range at the Western Open. I had played three consecutive poor rounds -- two at the U.S. Open and one at the Western. Hank (Haney, his coach) and I went on the range and said let's forget everything and work on the things we worked on at the start of the year.
"I hit balls for about three hours and for one of those hours, I really hit it. I had every shape of shot, height, spin, whatever you wanted, I had it for about an hour.
"Then I just built on that for the rest of the year."
Woods had just missed the cut at the U.S. Open, the first time he had missed a cut in a major, a misstep that could be excused because he had been grieving the death of his father, Earl, six weeks earlier. But when he shot an indifferent one-over-par 72 in the opening round in his next start at the Western ... well, enough was enough.
How effective was that practice session? From that day -- July 7 -- through this past weekend when he won the Target World Challenge in California, Woods played 11 stroke-play events, won eight of them and finished second in the other three. Over that span, Woods played 41 rounds of golf in a mind-boggling 166-under-par. That's an average of four-under per round.
Included in that run were victories at the British Open and PGA Championships which, of course, provides fuel for talk of a potential second Tiger Slam to match his 2000-01 feat of winning all four majors in succession, though not in the same season.
"Obviously Augusta is a long way away," Woods told reporters at the Target tournament, "but it's still in the backs of all our minds and the whole idea is to be playing well leading up to the tournament and hopefully have your game peak in that week. Hopefully I'll do the same at Oakmont (site of the 2007 U.S. Open)."
This was a watershed year for Woods. He turned 30. He lost his dad. He finished his first decade as a pro. And, oh yeah, he mopped the floor with his competitors. He has everything anyone would ever want in life, including a happy marriage. But lest anyone wonder if he has lost any of his competitive hunger, wonder no more. He continues to approach his sport with what he calls a football player's mentality.
"I don't think you lay up on par 5s on the football field," he explained. "You'd get run over. Obviously you have to bring everything you've got or you get hurt.
"In our sport, it's different. Some of the guys don't bring it every day and I just don't understand that. It's not hard to concentrate for five hours. That's why I bring it each and every day. I can't play any other way because I can't deal with the fact if I go home at night and look myself in the mirror that I didn't try as hard as I could have."
And, at the end of this year, as he does every year, he measures the quality of the year by a simple yardstick: "Am I a better golfer right now than I was at the beginning of the year?"
The answer at the end of 2006 is -- good guess! -- yes.
"It's been a successful year from a lot of standpoints ... understanding how to play the game, how to fix my game, how to hit certain shots, how to manage my game, understanding of the game of golf."
As successful as he has been in his first 10 years, there's every reason to believe Woods will be even more of a force as he moves through his 30s, which in golf is considered a player's prime.
"I certainly have a lot more tranquility in my life, a lot more understanding of how to manage my life," he said. "It wasn't always easy starting out. There's no class at Stanford or anywhere else that can prepare you for a life like this. Going through the bumps, then the curves and finally understanding how to do it and manage it certainly makes things a lot easier."
That news will hardly bring solace to the competition. The old Tiger was already too much to handle. Smarter? More mature? More at ease? More dominant?
Those are not the words Phil and the boys want to hear.