Tiger Woods has won six tournaments in 53 weeks, regained his No. 1 world ranking and recaptured his status as most intimidating competitor on the PGA Tour.
Now comes the big question: Can he start winning majors again?
Five years since he won the U.S. Open and eight since he claimed his fourth and most recent green jacket at the Masters, Woods on Thursday resumes his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major wins.
Woods, who won his last two starts, at Doral and Bay Hill, sounded a warning this week to the rest of the 93-man field at the Masters.
“I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game,” said Woods, who has four green jackets, two short of Nicklaus’ record. “I feel that I’ve improved and I’ve gotten more consistent, and the wins show that. That’s something I’m proud of this year, and hopefully I can continue it this week and the rest of the year.”
Steve Stricker, who gave Woods the putting tip at Doral that Woods said got that part of his game on track, played a practice round with Woods on Sunday.
“He’s hitting it nicely,” Stricker said. “Looks like he’s got a ton of confidence in that putter, too, which you need around here or anywhere if you’re going to win a golf tournament. … I expect him to be in the mix come Sunday for sure.”
If there’s one major in which Woods always seems to be in the mix, it’s the Masters. While he hasn’t won at Augusta since beating Chris DiMarco on the first hole of a playoff for his fourth Masters title in 2005, he had two seconds, a third and two fourths in his next six appearances before slipping to 40th last year.
Woods blamed a series of leg injuries that hampered him from 2008 through ‘11 for continually coming up short.
“I wasn’t physically capable of doing it,” he said. “Couldn’t practice, couldn’t play, sat out major championships and just wasn’t able to do any of the sessions that I needed to do to improve.
“Once I started to be able to practice, things turned and they turned quickly.”
Beyond improved health, Woods also needed time to adapt to swing coach Sean Foley, whom he hired in August 2010. By early last year, the results started coming, with wins at Bay Hill, the Memorial and the AT&T. He’s matched that total while playing in just four stroke-play events this year, winning at Torrey Pines in January and Doral and Bay Hill in March.
ESPN analyst Paul Azinger said he can’t wait to see what happens next.
“For me the anticipation is almost like a heavyweight fight,” he said. “It’s Ali stepping in against Foreman or Frazier, or Tyson vs. Bowe. Let’s see if he can get his first major now that he’s making every putt.
“Tiger also feels the pressure, just like everyone else, but he deals with it differently. That’s why I’m anticipating this Masters as much as any I’ve ever watched, to see how he deals with it.”
Another likely top contender this week is three-time winner Phil Mickelson, who finished third after contending into Sunday’s back nine last year. Another is former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who felt he got his game on track with a runner-up finish last week at San Antonio.
There’s also defending champion Bubba Watson, who has the length and imagination to become the first winner to repeat since Woods in 2001-02; Louis Oosthuizen, who had a rare double-eagle last year before losing to Watson on the second hole of a playoff; and Justin Rose, who at 32 seems overdue to win his first major.
Charl Schwartzel, the Masters winner in 2011, as well as 2011 PGA champ Keegan Bradley and 2010 U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell also should contend.
All of them should take heart in reports coming from Woods’ practice round Wednesday. He missed the green at No. 12; hit four tee shots at No. 13, only one of which found the fairway, and missed the green again at No. 14. Be that as it may, he’ll tee off at 10:45 a.m. as a 3-1 favorite, with McIlroy 8-1 and Mickelson 10-1.
If Woods does end his nearly five-year drought in majors, his pursuit of Nicklaus’ record will become the No. 1 topic in sports.
“I went on record last year saying I didn’t think he could break Jack’s record,” ESPN’s Curtis Strange said, “but he’s really playing well now.
“I hope he gets to 17, because (then) golf is going to be on the front page of every newspaper in the world when he goes for 18. But who knows?”