With seven years having passed since his 2005 win, Woods has returned to Augusta National Golf Club this year riding momentum he hasn’t had for several years as he struggled through personal issues, injuries and a swing change.
A 14-time major tournament winner, Woods said the goal this week remains the same as it always has been.
“I’m here for the green jacket,” he said in a news conference yesterday.
Woods is seeking his fifth Masters title and is coming off a victory two weeks ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a win that has lifted expectations for the former world No. 1 to resume his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors.
To do so, Woods will have to overcome a field that includes U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, a 22-year-old Northern Irishman; three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson of the U.S., and England’s Luke Donald, golf’s No. 1 player.
While there are 96 players entered, Woods’s recent win has dominated in the lead up to the tournament and caused discussions of a showdown with McIlroy, who held a four-shot lead going into the final round of last year’s Masters before closing with an 8-over 80.
“Everyone wants that kind of rivalry,” Donald said in a news conference. “Those two garner the most attention right now, but I think it’s naive to say that there are only two that have a chance to win. I think there’s a chance for a lot of people to win this week.”
‘He Creates Excitement’
McIlroy, who took three weeks off before arriving in Augusta, is among those welcoming the return of Woods’s winning ways.
“It’s great for the tournament,” he said in a news conference. “He creates excitement that no one else in the game can. A lot of people want to see him make history and it looks like he’s back on track to maybe going and doing that.”
Woods, 36, is four major titles shy of matching Nicklaus’s record. His last major win came at the 2008 U.S. Open, where he defeated Rocco Mediate in a playoff before undergoing knee surgery. A win this week would give Woods 73 U.S. PGA Tour wins, matching Nicklaus for second on the career list behind Sam Snead’s 82.
“I’m looking forward to getting out there,” Woods said. “I feel like I’m driving the ball much better than I have. I’ve got some heat behind it and it’s very straight. My iron game is improving. So everything is headed in the right direction at the right time.”
Years of Experience
At Augusta, a course he first played as an 18-year-old in 1995, Woods said he will be able to pull from years of experience when needed, giving him an advantage Masters veterans before him enjoyed against other players.
“That’s the reason why you see so many older players here in contention a lot,” Woods said. “They just know how to play it. I’ve gotten just umpteen amounts of advice from guys who have played here way more than I have. That’s really helped.”
Being healthy again also has helped Woods, who injured his knee during last year’s Masters and missed the U.S. and British opens while recovering. He withdrew from last month’s Cadillac Championship with an Achilles strain and has spent the past 18 months revamping his swing under coach Sean Foley.
A New Start
Woods has finished fourth in his past two Masters, playing under the strain of a sex scandal that led to a divorce and the loss of corporate sponsors. With his personal life more settled and his golf game coming back to form, Woods said his 18th Masters appearance seems like a new start.
“It’s been a few years,” Woods said. “As far as having the speed and pop in my game, it’s been a very long time.”
Woods’s win two weeks ago broke his 2 1/2-year victory drought on the PGA Tour.
“It’s a huge win for him to be successful this week,” Mickelson said. “He’s obviously been playing well, and to have won heading in I think gives him a lot of confidence.”
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