Augusta, United States | AFP | Tiger Woods excited fans and rivals alike by practicing Monday at the Masters, the 14-time major champion totally healthy at Augusta National for the first time in five years.
Woods, and the potential for his first major victory since the 2008 US Open and first Masters win since 2005, was the talk of the course, even with a dozen other stars on peak form ahead of Thursday’s start of the year’s first major championship.
“When Tiger walked onto the range there was an anticipation and excitement from the crowd to watch him compete again,” said Britain’s Justin Rose, last year’s Masters runner-up and the 2013 US Open champion.
Woods hasn’t won a title since 2013 but after failed comebacks and four back surgeries, the last a spinal fusion, he’s a contender again at age 42.
“I got a second chance on life,” Woods said on his website. “I am a walking miracle.”
Woods shared second at the PGA Valspar Championship and fifth at Bay Hill in his Masters tuneups.
“This year is going to be different,” Woods said. “This year I’m healthy. I can play and I can compete.”
Former world number one Woods, now ranked 103, practiced with Fred Couples and 2017 PGA Championship winner Justin Thomas as fans flocked to watch every shot for a hint of the magic that brought him Masters titles in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005.
“When it comes to Tiger and the Tigermania that comes with it, that everyone wants to see him win and play the way he did before,” said Australian Jason Day, the 2015 PGA Championship winner. “Everyone’s kind of champing at the bit for him to get here and see how he’s moving and everything.”
Thomas, Rose and top-ranked Dustin Johnson plus multiple major winners Rory McIlroy — seeking a career Grand Slam with a win — and Jordan Spieth all enter the Masters playing well. But the biggest roars are for Woods.
“There’s a number of guys that are playing really nice,” Day said. “But everyone is kind of solely focused on Tiger and what he’s going to do here and seeing if he can get to number 15.
“That’s fine with us. I can just focus on what I need to do to try and win.
“There’s going to be a buzz around Augusta this week with Tiger being on the grounds and it’s going to be exciting to see, but everyone else has got a game plan to do. They’ve got to try and be the person that’s going to slip on that green jacket on Sunday.”
– Forgotten Tiger feats? –
Day said the 10-year major drought had people forgetting what Woods has done, his major title total four shy of the all-time record of Jack Nicklaus and his 79 PGA wins three off Sam Snead’s record.
“I think a lot of people quickly forgot what he had accomplished in his career as he got injured and was out for a while,” Day said. “That’s just life. Everyone lives fast now. Everyone wants instant gratification.
“Now that he’s back and he looks kind of where he was before, everyone’s getting that taste back in there, like, oh, let’s see what he can do.”
Woods and Spieth are Las Vegas oddsmaker favorites with McIlroy, Thomas and Johnson just behind followed by Rose, Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson.
“We’re all favorites,” two-time Masters winner Watson said. “We’re all good enough to win out here.”
– Tiger ‘going to threaten’ –
But Woods has wily veterans admiring how he is hitting the ball further off the tee despite spinal fusion.
“He’s going to threaten,” three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo said. “He has the potential. His game is amazing. I think he’s ahead of schedule.
“How he has found five more mph in clubhead speed in his 40s after a fused back is unbelievable.”
Two-time winner Bernhard Langer noted that Woods’s return was just one of the week’s great storylines.
“You’ve got great champions at all ages and they all seem to have a possible chance,” the 60-year-old German said. “That’s fantastic leading up to the tournament.”
Sergio Garcia, who won his first major title after 73 failed attempts at last year’s Masters, will try to join Woods, Faldo and Jack Nicklaus as the only back-to-back Masters winners.