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Tiger confident upon arrival at Augusta

AUGUSTA, Georgia, April 2 – Tiger Woods arrived at the Masters confident and fit on Sunday, playing a practice round over Augusta National’s front nine in advance of Thursday’s start to the first major of the year.

Woods, a four-time Masters champion and 14-time major winner, snapped a US PGA win drought of 2 1/2 years one week ago with a victory at Bay Hill. Now he hopes to end a major title drought dating to the 2008 US Open.

“Physically I’m fine,” Woods told the Masters website. “I feel great, no aches and pains.”

Woods, who also played Augusta National’s front nine the week before winning at Bay Hill, has won at least once in a season before each of his prior Masters’ triumphs. But Woods has not won a Masters title since 2005.

“The whole idea is to get your game together and have it going the way you want at the time you want,” Woods said. “There are four times a year you want to be playing your best and this is one of them.”

Woods, chasing the all-time record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, has shared fourth each of the past two years at the Masters, coming back in 2010 after a layoff over his infamous sex scandal.

Alongside caddie Joe LaCava, Woods played on Sunday with pal Mark O’Meara and Vern Cooley, a surgeon who had operated on Woods’ leg, in a relaxed morning round under sunny skies amid towering pine trees.

Woods, 36, practiced putting at locations where he expects pins to be placed during the tournament and worked on chipping from areas just off the green, seeing how he could make the ball spin and stop on the famed undulating greens at Augusta.

Oddsmakers liked what they saw from Woods at Bay Hill, edging Woods into a favored role just ahead of reigning US Open champion Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, the prodigy who led after each of the first three rounds last year and with nine holes to play before soaring to an 80.

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McIlroy, 22, set aside the Masters heartbreak and won his first major title in his next chance two months later at Congressional.

“It was just nice to see that not really ever build into something bigger for him mentally, just to put it to bed,” England’s Justin Rose said.

“He has learned how to win. Pretty much every chance that he’s had a lead he has closed it out since Augusta.”

Former World No. 1 McIlroy has made former World No. 1 Woods take notice.

“He has fantastic talent,” Woods said. “He is working on his game and working on his fitness and with all that has compiled a pretty good record.”

Woods raised concerns last month with a left Achilles tendon strain but pulled out at Doral after feeling it and has come back in strong form since. Last year Woods injured his Achilles making a shot in the Masters’ third round and the injury dogged him for much of the season.

But instead of old injury flare-ups, Woods now appears to have found the form of his glory days.

“I had been making steps in the right direction,” Woods said. “It had just not shown up for all four days yet.”

World No. 1 Luke Donald of England, chasing his first major title, won both the US and European money crowns last season, and won three weeks ago at Tampa to reclaim the top ranking after losing it to McIlroy.

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In addition, Australians Adam Scott and Jason Day will lead a charge from Down Under. No Aussie has ever won the Masters, but Scott and Day shared second last year.

Scott has spent much of his time practicing, playing only three events this season in a strategy change he hopes will pay off with his first major title.

“You don’t have to compete to be ready to compete. You have to practice,” Scott said. “I have to do enough that my game will hold up for four days of a major. I have to put in more work (than) in the past to do that.”

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