AUGUSTA, April 3 – Tiger Woods is back on the course and back on form entering the Masters after an injury layoff, making him the favorite to win a 15th major and fifth Augusta National Golf Club green jacket.
The 33-year-old superstar captured his first title since returning from left knee surgery, and an eight-month layoff, with a dramatic 72nd-hole birdie last weekend to take the Arnold Palmer Invitational for a sixth time.
"It feels good to be back, to feel the heat on the back nine on Sunday," Woods said.
"This feels like I hadn’t left. It hasn’t been that long for me but you just have that feel of what to do and it’s a matter of getting it done."
Woods has won 14 career major titles, four of them at historic Augusta National, including his breakthrough 1997 triumph. He also captured the green jacket symbolic of victory at Augusta in 2001, 2002 and 2005.
On Thursday he will renew his pursuit of boyhood idol Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record of 18 major crowns. A fifth Masters victory would move Woods past Palmer and put him one shy of Nicklaus’ career record six Augusta titles.
Woods limped to victory in his last major start at last year’s US Open after settling for second at the 2008 Masters behind South Africa’s Trevor Immelman despite the onset of the injury that would force him into rehabilitation.
"It is not a lot of fun. The first few months are pretty tough," Woods said. "You’re in quite a bit of pain. It was just a lack of strength, mobility, just a lot of different things that you take for granted. That’s all taken away."
After a return in February’s World Golf Championships Match-Play event, and improvement at Doral in another WGC event, Woods served notice he is ready to reclaim his throne lest any rivals expect to bump him from atop the rankings.
"I’ve gotten better at each one and that was the whole idea, to keep progressing to Augusta," Woods said. "I was hoping I could get my game where I could feel hitting shots again.
"This has been a little bit quicker (than expected). I was just kind of hoping I might be able to get back to the Match Play. I felt like my leg is good. Doral was just a huge turning point for getting my feel because I got better each and every day with my feel for different shots."
Ireland’s Padraig Harrington has the hottest hand at the majors, having won the past two British Opens and last year’s PGA Championship.
But this will be the first time since his back-to-back majors that the Irishman will be tested by Woods, who completed his own run of four consecutive majors – the Tiger Slam – at the 2001 Masters.
"It doesn’t have to happen this time around, even though it is a nice thing to talk about," Harrington said.
"It would be a nice bonus to win three majors in a row, but does it make much difference whether I win this one or win one in a year or two? No, I’m quite patient. I’ll wait. It doesn’t have to happen this time around.
"I’m not going to get drawn into this (idea) that if I go to the Masters and I don’t win that there’s a failure in that, that it takes away in any way from the last two majors."
Woods knows how difficult the wait between last August’s PGA and the Masters can be when you are on a major win streak.
"It’s the expectations, the responsibilities that come with winning two majors in a row, the questions he’s going to get asked week in and week out, and it’s going to be the months," Woods said.
"Going into 2001 the time that it took to get from the PGA to the Masters, it just seemed like an eternity because people kept asking questions each and every day about what do you think about Augusta. But that’s just something that he’s had to deal with."
Woods also will have to deal with other top rivals, including two-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, Spanish star Sergio Garcia, 2000 winner Vijay Singh of Fiji and Immelman.
Australian Greg Norman, whose list of heartbreaks at Augusta National is legendary, returns for the first time since 2002 for a 23rd Masters start. Norman, 54, was second in 1986, 1987 and 1996 and third three other times.
Norman, who qualified by finishing third at the 2008 British Open, had not played the course since 2002, when he shared 36th, until a practice round last week. The course has undergone several renovations and stretchings since then.