Augusta (United States) (AFP) – Tiger Woods says nothing short of winning a fifth green jacket would be considered a successful Masters, even after spinal fusion surgery and no major starts since the 2015 PGA Championship.
“I feel fantastic,” Woods said. “I like my chances.”
And it’s that attitude, combined with good health and two top-five showings last month, which has rivals at Augusta National ahead of Thursday’s start of the 82nd Masters seeing glimpses of the intimidation factor Woods made famous in 14 major triumphs from 1997 to 2008.
“He has got a little bit of an intimidation factor still,” top-ranked Dustin Johnson said. “He’s one of the best to ever play the game. So you would think he’s going to figure out a way to get it back.”
Woods, 42, is second to the all-time record 18 major wins of Jack Nicklaus. Woods hasn’t won a major since the 2008 US Open and no player over 40 has won the Masters since 1998.
But that hasn’t slowed Tigermania at Augusta National, spectators sensing something special could be at hand.
“He’s going to win at some point. I think that’s pretty clear to everyone with the way he has played and continued to get better,” eighth-ranked Rickie Fowler said.
“You hear guys talk about the early 2000s and that intimidation factor. The young guys have heard about that. They are just getting to see some of that as far as his presence and getting a glimpse at what he’s capable of.”
Combine that with a host of other top golfers in prime form and it’s no wonder three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, who at 47 could become the event’s oldest winner, calls this the most anticipated Masters.
“A lot of the top quality players, young and old, are playing some of their best golf,” Mickelson said. “I think that’s going to lead to one of the most exciting Masters in years.”
Woods, ranked 103rd in the world, has won 79 career titles, three shy of Sam Snead’s all-time record.
But he hasn’t won any event since the 2013 WGC Bridgestone Invitational, fighting through leg and back injuries for most of the past seven years.
“Given how I feel now versus then, it’s just night and day,” Woods said. “I’m walking this golf course and hitting shots and not having to think about anything.”
Woods, who has never won a major title when not leading after 54 holes, sees a tight fight to the end this week.
“There’s not one person that’s going to run away with it,” Woods said. “It’s going to be quite a challenge.”
– Tiger has ‘great chance’ –
Rory McIlroy, who would complete a Career Grand Slam by winning the Masters, sees Woods as a threat this week.
“He has got a great chance,” McIlroy said. “Look how he played the last few weeks. He has had four wins here. He’s very comfortable around this course and his game is right there.
“He’s dangerous at any golf tournament but given his history here, I think even more so.”
Second-ranked Justin Thomas, the 24-year-old American who won last year’s PGA Championship, says of Tiger: “I know he wants to make another run at us young guns.”
Challenge accepted, says 11th-ranked Australian Jason Day.
“Everyone is solely focused on Tiger and what he’s going to do,” Day said. “There are 10-20 other guys that honestly believe they can beat Tiger on his good day now.”
– Tiger ‘extra motivation’ –
Spaniard Jon Rahm, 23, could become world number one with a Masters victory. He was two years old when Woods won the 1997 Masters for his first major title.
“It’s very hard to imagine what it would be like if he were to play good again at majors and have chances to win and I was playing against him,” Rahm said.
“It’s an extra motivation for everybody. Many of us practiced having this putt to beat Tiger… After how he has played this year, it could happen.”