by Jim Slater
WASHINGTON, April 6, 2013 (AFP) – Tiger Woods has not won a major title since 2008 but he enters the 77th Masters as the player to beat after three triumphs in as many months and form to rival his glory days.
The 14-time major champion, chasing the all-time record of 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, has won at Torrey Pines, Doral and Bay Hill and reclaimed the World No. 1 ranking that he had not held since October 2010.
“It shows that my game is consistent. It’s at a high level,” Woods said. “It is getting the little things out of each round. You have got to grind it out and get those rounds in and that’s something I’ve done.”
More than that, Woods has been confident and impressive with the putter in his victories, something that will be vital over the undulating greens of Augusta National when the year’s first major championship tees off on Thursday.
“The three events that I’ve won, I’ve putted well. I’ve made my share of putts, especially some really key putts,” Woods said.
The last time Woods won back-to-back events just ahead of Augusta, as he did last month at Doral and Bay Hill, was in 2001 when he won Bay Hill and the Players Championship before completing the “Tiger Slam” of four major triumphs in a row at the Masters.
Woods has won 77 career PGA titles, five shy of tying the late Sam Snead’s all-time record, and shown flashes of the form that allowed him to dominate the sport for nearly a decade.
“I know I can play this game at a high level,” Woods said. “I know I can be where I’m contending in every event, contending in major championships and being consistent day-in and day-out.”
Woods has changed much about his game and his life since his 2008 US Open triumph and the epic sex scandal that erupted in late 2009.
He divorced Elin Nordegren and now dates US ski star Lindsey Vonn. He split with caddie Steve Williams in 2011 and Joe LaCava is now his bagman. He split with coach Hank Haney in 2010 and Sean Foley has helped rebuild Woods’s swing.
There’s a new Team Tiger trying for major victories in the shadow of past glory even as Woods seeks his fifth Masters title, his first since 2005, and his first major triumph since the 2008 US Open.
“I don’t want to become as good as I once was,” Woods said. “I want to become better.”
Woods shared fourth at the 2010 and 2011 Masters while fighting injury and emotional turmoil but only managed a share of 40th last year while working on his swing. He admitted his game was not where he wanted in any of those starts.
“I’ve felt like maybe my game wasn’t quite consistent enough to be there at that point,” Woods said. “I’ve gotten so much better since those events. I’ve cleaned up a lot of different things in my game, turned some of the weaknesses I had into strengths. I’m really excited about the rest of this year.”
Woods has won 52 of 55 events when he leads after 54 holes, including 21 of his past 22, but he has never won a major when trailing after three rounds. That puts a familiar pressure on veterans like Steve Stricker.
“His attitude and his belief in himself again looks very similar to when he was in the early 2000s,” Stricker said. “He just seems in a better place mentally. He seems to be having fun, seems to have a lot of confidence.”
Woods has a host of rivals to challenge him, with World No. 2 Rory McIlroy playing two weeks in a row before the Masters to try to work his game into form as he hunts for the third major title of his young career.
“I’m excited about my game and excited about how I’m hitting the ball,” McIlroy said after the Houston Open. “My short game is sharp and putted it pretty nice. If I can limit the sloppy mistakes I’ll be fine.”
England’s World No. 3 Justin Rose, who like Woods works with Foley, has risen himself and watched Woods climb back from 58th in the world to the top ranking.
“I feel like I have had an inner look at what has gone on behind the scenes. I’ve seen how hard he has worked,” Rose said. “He got outside the top 50 in the world and to get back from there to number one… it has been an uphill climb.”
Brandt Snedeker, who won at Pebble Beach and finished second at Torrey Pines, likes his chances for a major breakthrough at Augusta as well.
“I’ve gone there in the past thinking I could contend,” he said. “This year I’m going knowing I can contend, knowing that winning is not a far-fetched idea. It’s very much a reality. I go in with a ton of confidence.”
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