Rejuvenated Tiger Woods stalks 'miracle' Masters title

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Tiger Woods calls it a miracle that he’s stalking a 15th major title at Augusta National this week, just a year after he could barely sit through the Masters champions’ dinner.

“It is a miracle,” the 42-year-old superstar said Tuesday, less than 12 months after spinal fusion surgery.

“I don’t know of anyone who has had a lower back fusion that can swing the club as fast as I can swing it. That’s incredible.”

It certainly wasn’t what Woods was expecting when he opted for the fusion, after three prior procedures that failed to relieve debilitating nerve pain.

“I thought prior to the fusion surgery that that’s pretty much it. I’ll have a nice, comfortable and great life, but I’ll never be able to swing the club like I used to speed-wise, just there’s no way.”

But Woods has astonished in his latest return from injury – so much so that he’s among the favorites to win the first major championship of the season, which tees off on Thursday.

“Obviously, he knows how to win, he’s not scared when he’s in the situation of in contention on the weekends,” said world number eight Rickie Fowler, Woods’s neighbor in Jupiter, Florida, who has seen Woods progress from tentative putting and chipping at home late last year to contending this season on the US PGA Tour.

“He’s going to win at some point. I think that’s pretty clear to everyone with the way he’s played and continued to get better.”

Woods counts four Masters titles among his 14 majors. His litany of injuries and abortive comebacks have largely quashed expectations that he would surpass Jack Nicklaus’s record total of 18.

Woods admits that his efforts to return to competition the past two years while still battling back pain were “a big pipe dream”.

“My back was fried,” he said. “I was trying, whether it was cortisone shots, epidurals, anything to take away the pain so maybe I might be able to withstand a week. Nothing worked. My disk was gone.”

Woods’s April forays to Augusta National the past two years were bittersweet pre-tournament appearances only.

In 2016 he was saddened to see the declining health of Arnold Palmer and last year he was in such pain he could barely sit through the annual dinner shared by past winners.

“My nerve was on fire, it was going down my leg and it was just burning,” Woods recalled.

Now playing “pain-free,” Woods has gone from strength to strength since returning to action in the unofficial Hero World Challenge in December.

He posted a runner-up finish at the USPGA Tour’s Valspar Championship and a tie for fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The sight of Woods, clad in trademark red and black, contending for a title on Sunday, has electrified golf fans and recaptured the attention of those who know Woods more for the personal indiscretions that wrecked his marriage, sent sponsors fleeing and made him tabloid fodder back in 2009.

Woods made headlines for the wrong reasons again last May, eventually pleading guilty to driving under the influence of prescription drugs.

Now, he says, he feels better than he has in “seven or eight years”.
“I feel fantastic,” Woods said. It’s just a matter of now going out there and competing and playing and posting numbers.”

But the 42-year-old Woods knows adding to the Masters titles he won in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005 is no slam dunk.

The 82nd edition of the tournament sees not only a raft of 20-something players — including major winners Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas – in form but also 47-year-old Phil Mickelson leading a charge of proven champions.

“I have four rounds to play, so let’s just kind of slow down,” said Woods, a master at managing out-sized expectations.

He recalled the anticipation preceding the 2001 Masters, where a victory would make him the first golfer to hold all four major titles simultaneously.

“It’s the same thing,” he said. “I’ve got to play and let the chips fall where they may. Hopefully, I end up on top.”

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Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson play practice round together ahead of The Masters

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Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson practiced together ahead of the Masters.

Tiger Woods continued his build-up to a first Masters appearance since 2015 with a practice round alongside long-time rival Phil Mickelson.

Woods and Mickelson were joined by 1992 champion Fred Couples and Belgium’s Thomas Pieters as they teed off from the 10th shortly after 08:30 local time on Tuesday.

Mickelson, 47, who won for the first time since 2013 last month, is aiming to surpass Jack Nicklaus as the oldest ever winner at Augusta National.

And Woods, who underwent spinal fusion surgery last April, is seeking a first major title – and 15th in total – since winning the US Open in 2008.

With both men due to hold their pre-tournament press conference on Tuesday afternoon, it was expected that they would only play the back nine.

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Golf needs in-form Tiger Woods playing in 2018 Ryder Cup, says Thomas Bjorn

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Woods has found form ahead of the Masters at Augusta.

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn has said that having a rejuvenated Tiger Woods playing in September for the Americans against his team in Paris would be a “massive bonus” for golf.

Fourteen-time major champion Woods has impressed since returning to the PGA Tour after a series of injury problems, notching back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time since 2013.

Bjorn insisted that he wouldn’t be disappointed if his players have to face up against the former world number one, saying a fit and firing Tiger at the Ryder Cup would be “unbelievable for the game”.

“Tiger Woods’ involvement for the game of golf is hugely important,” Dane Bjorn told AFP.

“He is the ultimate superstar in sport and that’s very important for the game that he’s involved.

“I think it’ll be great for the game if he (Woods) plays and a massive bonus for the Ryder Cup in France. If he got back to a place where he was among the best 12 players in America… I think for the game of golf that would be unbelievable.”

Woods will head into the Masters next month as one of the favourites for the green jacket, a remarkable situation given he was ranked outside of the world’s top 1,000 just last year.

The 42-year-old, a veteran of seven Ryder Cups, has only been part of one winning American side — back in 1999.
But Bjorn warned against underestimating “the best that’s ever played”.

“Now that he’s back on the golf course and playing well, once he starts getting confident he’s the best that’s ever played and he can do incredible things,” he added.

“It will be interesting to see how the next three or four months develop in Tiger Woods’ golf life, because there seems to be the thing about him that’s a bit more humble.

“I think he’s really happy with the way things have developed and I think he’ll go and do really good things.”

Woods, who will be hoping to claim an 80th PGA Tour title in the coming months, has already been appointed as a vice-captain to US skipper Jim Furyk for the matches in France.

But Bjorn knows that having an in-form Woods playing instead of on the sidelines would be anything but a boost for Europe’s chances of regaining the trophy.

“He can play himself into the team and then the vice-captaincy disappears a little bit because he has to focus on his playing,” said Bjorn.

“But America have a very good set-up now with Jim (Furyk) being captain and guys like Davis Love and Steve Stricker.

They’ve been around a long time and they know each other very well.”

With Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas fighting it out for the world no. 1 spot and the likes of Phil Mickelson and Patrick Reed hitting form, the addition of Woods could make an already-formidable American line-up look even stronger at Le Golf National in six months’ time.

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