Column: Is Tiger of old back for the Masters?

Associated Press  |  Last updated April 09, 2013
(Eds: With AP Photos.) By TIM DAHLBERG AP Sports Columnist He's got a swing he can finally trust, a putter that shows flashes of the old magic, and a string of wins to prove that it's all finally coming together. The superstar girlfriend is an added bonus, though by now so much time has passed that the debate about Tiger Woods revolves around the state of his game, not his personal life. Winning may not take care of everything, as his latest Nike ad claims. But six wins in his comeback are a confidence-inducing tonic for Woods, and the commercial is certainly more upbeat than the one Nike ran two years ago with his late father ominously asking him what he could have been thinking. Woods is more upbeat, too, and with good reason. When last seen here a year ago he was kicking clubs, missing putts and muttering to himself about chances gone awry. He didn't break par in four rounds, and left with barely enough prize money to fuel up his private jet. Now he's a heavy favorite to win his fifth Masters and kick start his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus in the majors. The swagger that has always suited him so well seems to be back, and the way he was talking Tuesday this might not be a good year to bet against him. ''I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game,'' Woods said. Woods could have been talking about his life, too. More than once during his pre-Masters news conference he did, especially when speaking of the joys of fatherhood and how he can teach his children the basics of golf in the backyard short game complex at his South Florida mansion. Lindsey Vonn wasn't mentioned at all, but she has to figure in all this newfound bliss, too. Just a few weeks ago, Woods and the Olympic skiing champion announced they were in a relationship in a series of photos both posted on social media sites. And while Woods is normally taciturn to a fault in interviews, he laughed, had a few funny lines, and was more introspective than usual in the press center on Tuesday. ''I think it's just a balance, a balance in life,'' Woods said. ''I think that's what you're seeing.'' Whether it all translates into another green jacket is anyone's guess. Golf is a funny game even for Tiger Woods, and the tricky greens of Augusta National have derailed his high hopes before. He won four Masters in a nine-year stretch after breaking through with his historic win in 1997, but he hasn't celebrated here since 2005. This is a Masters he badly - almost desperately - needs, and not just to completely validate his comeback from injuries and marriage scandal. The clock is ticking on his chase of the Nicklaus record of 18 major championships - Woods has 14 - and the player who once held all four major titles at once has now gone almost five years without winning even one. He's 37 now, not an advanced age by any stretch for a golfer. But Woods has been playing the Masters for half his life - this will be his 19th time competing - and as each year goes by another opportunity slips away. There's a 14-year-old from China who wasn't even born when Woods won in 1997 in the field this week and if Woods had to be reminded about time passing by, he was by a question about what age he would entertain becoming a ceremonial starter in the Masters like Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. ''Let me just try to get to 40 first,'' he said. Woods is still the No. 1 player in the world - taking over from Rory McIlroy after winning at Bay Hill earlier this year - but his drought at the majors is more often the subject of conversation than the fact he has rebuilt his game and is winning again. That's partly his own fault, since he has focused almost singularly on them ever since he was growing up in Southern California with a chart of Nicklaus major championship wins on his wall. ''It took Jack a while to get to 18, all the way until he was 46 years old,'' Woods said. ''So there's plenty of opportunities for me.'' The first of those opportunities begins Thursday morning on a course he both knows and loves. Woods is a player who tends to win in bunches on certain courses and, aside from last year's lackluster performance, Augusta National usually brings out the best in him. His winning drought in majors has been long, but not terribly surprising considering he had to rebuild a knee, a swing and a personal life after winning the U.S. Open on one leg at Torrey Pines. Woods cautioned repeatedly that at least the knee and swing were a work in progress, but golf at this level also requires a clear head and the kind of focus that made Woods so fearsome in his younger days. The Masters is always huge because of what it represents and because it is the first major of the year. For Woods, though, the stakes are even higher this year, if only because he needs to demonstrate to himself that he can still win at the highest level. The man he's chasing understands that better than anyone. ''It's been a while,'' Nicklaus said. ''He's going to have to figure it out. But I think if he figures it out here, it will be a great boost for him. If he doesn't figure it out here, after the spring he's had, I think it will be a lot tougher for him.'' For now, Nicklaus is the greatest golfer ever, and until Woods catches him the title is still his. This week could say a lot about how long or fruitful that chase will be. ---- Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg
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