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Green jacket up for grabs

AUGUSTA, Georgia, April 7 – Tiger Woods makes his competitive comeback after a shocking sex scandal in Thursday's first round of the Masters with 95 rivals trying to deny the world's number one golfer a 15th major title.

Global attention will be riveted upon television coverage of Woods on the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club at 1:42 in the afternoon Thursday (1742 GMT) when the humbled sports hero returns to action.

"That first tee, I’m looking forward to it," Woods said. "I haven’t looked forward to that tee shot in a long time, not like this. It feels fun again. That’s something that has been missing."

Woods has admitted an adultery scandal that has seen more than a dozen women claim sexual relationships with the married father of two, destroying the squeaky-clean image that made Woods the world’s first billion-dollar sportsman.

But Woods has been warmly received in two days of practice rounds at Augusta National and opened himself to questions for the first time Tuesday since the tabloid firestorm overtook him.

"Have I been winning? Have I been doing well? Yeah, but I wasn’t having anywhere near the amount of fun," Woods said. "When you live a life where you are lying all the time, life is not fun. That’s where I was.

"Now that has been stripped all away and here I am. It feels fun again."

Woods is trying to duplicate a feat achieved only by Ben Hogan in 1951 and 1953 by winning the Masters as his season debut, but he has been a favorite among oddsmakers within minutes of announcing he would return at the Masters.

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"I think he’s favored to win the tournament. I would not be surprised at all," said Irishman Padraig Harrington, a three-time major champion.

"No matter how he looks or what he comes up and says, you don’t know how this is affecting him inside and how it’s affecting his golf. I would not be surprised if he is contending and if he played better golf than ever.

"But there’s obviously a doubt to that and we will only be able to find that out on Sunday evening."

Few doubt he can make a triumphant return for a fifth green jacket, the symbol of Masters supremacy.

"I expect his game to be sharp," three-time major champion Phil Mickelson said. "This is a golf course he has won on four times and loves as much as I do and plays it as well as anybody ever has in the history of the game.

"This is a place that I think a lot of people know that he can win on and it’s going to take a good performance to beat him."

Woods, a 14-time major champion, is four shy of the all-time record won by Jack Nicklaus. He has not played a competitive round in 144 days since winning the Australian Masters in mid-November.

"Tiger is the sort of person who can just roll up, turn the key and off he goes — like a Rolls Royce," England’s Paul Casey said.

Another favorite on form is South African Ernie Els, who won tuneup titles last month at Doral and Bay Hill. The "Big Easy" is a two-time US Open winner and former British Open champion who has twice settled for second at Augusta.

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"He has been playing some incredible golf," Phil Mickelson said. "To see him cap it off with a couple of wins is exciting for the game. He’s a big draw and people pull for him to play well."

Another player on form is American Fred Couples, who at 50 has three titles and a runner-up showing in 50-and-over Champions Tour events this year. The 1992 Masters champion shared third at Augusta National as recently as 2006.

"Fred has got an incredible chance to win this week because he is playing some of the best golf of his career," Mickelson said.

"Having that confidence of winning brings an added element to his game. He hits the ball as long as anybody on tour still and he knows this course as well as anybody."

Augusta National’s famed undulating greens and formidable trees and bunkers create one of golf’s great challenges, reigning British Open champion Stewart Cink said.

"It’s a very stressful course to play when you’re in a major championship," Cink said. "It’s a really difficult test and it comes at you with every shot.

"If your game is up to it and your mentality is up to it, you can succeed and play well and have some confidence, but if you are wavering in any way, the course just identifies that and it just spits you out."

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