Here comes the Tiger
Tiger Woods has proved just how determined he is to mark his competitive return to golf with a win by completing two intensive days of practice at Augusta.
The world No 1 is believed to have returned to Orlando late last night after playing 72 holes on the course where he will contest the Masters in a fortnight's time.
Woods flew to Georgia early on Monday morning, a few hours after the screening of the first interviews he had granted since the car crash outside his home in November which led to a torrent of revelations of extra-marital affairs.
Golf Digest reported that he embarked on an exhaustive programme on Monday, playing two rounds followed by a lengthy short-game session. He was due to undertake the same schedule yesterday.
Woods has not played competitively since winning in Australia on November 15. As the 34-year-old did not begin practising again until three weeks ago, he plainly needs as much fairway time as possible. But there was undoubtedly more to his trip than simple reconnaissance of the layout where he has won four Green Jackets.
As Woods commented during the five-minute sit-downs he gave to ESPN and the Golf Channel: "I know how to play that golf course."
Woods normally practises at Isleworth, the private course on the gated community where he lives.
For the last two days, the Tavistock Cup has been held there and in any other year Woods would have been teeing it up in this made-for-TV exhibition match. Instead, Augusta offered a bolt-hole to continue his behind-closed-doors preparations.
Woods will be attempting to become the first golfer to win the Masters on his first start of the season since Ben Hogan 57 years ago. He is 3/1 favourite to do just that, despite the fact he has not prevailed at Augusta in five years.
While Woods insists his game is not yet ready to tee it up in tomorrow's Arnold Palmer Invitational -- and so enjoy a warm-up event -- the word from Isleworth suggests he is, in fact, playing as well as ever.
After playing with him on Thursday, Friday and Sunday last week, John Cook declares his friend's form to be "vintage".
"From what I've seen the last three days with his ball-striking I think he will win at Augusta," said the former British Open runner-up. "I don't see anybody hitting the ball like he does. It was vintage. If he takes that game up there, I'd be hard-pressed to see anybody beating him."
Cook, however, realises there will be other factors than mere match-fitness threatening Woods' challenge for a 15th Major.
"We all know that that's not the whole battle, there are a lot of other issues there for him," he said. "You have to go up to the first green and mark your ball and you have to finish out and sign your name at the end of the day -- that's a whole different deal.
"It will be his first rounds of golf for five months. But he just got through something that takes all the fortitude you have. If he can survive that, playing golf is nothing."
Arjun Atwal, another PGA Tour professional, made up last week's three-ball and was just as effusive as Cook about the man who apparently took all the money.
"Woods feels he's not totally ready, but I think he's ready," said Atwal. "He's very mellow now, very chilled out. He's also hitting it longer than before, there's no doubt. He's killing it, absolutely killing it. Nothing seems rusty, nothing at all.
"He thinks he isn't putting very well -- but for us mere mortals it seems okay. If Tiger gets that putter going at all, he'll probably win the Masters."
Meanwhile, Seve Ballesteros has hailed Woods' decision to return to golf at the Masters and gives him "a great chance" of winning.
Ballesteros, speaking as Bid Patron at the official launch of Madrid's 2018 Ryder Cup bid, said: "I am pleased to see that Tiger Woods made the decision to come back.
"This is the best news that golf can have right now and I wish him good luck. We all know his potential and Augusta is a very long course. He is very used to playing long off the tee, and he knows the golf course very well, so I think he has a great chance to win." (© Independent News Service)