Rivals expect Tiger to roar at Masters once more

04 Apr 2012 20:16

Tiger Woods has recovered the form that brought him 14 major titles and rivals at the 76th Masters expect him to produce roars from the crowd and at least a hint of his once-invulnerable aura.

Woods snapped a 2 1/2-year US PGA win drought two weeks ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his first tour-level triumph since the infamous 2009 sex scandal that rocked the golf world and destroyed his iconic marketing image.

"It was a huge win for him to be successful this week," three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson said. "He's going to have a great week. To have won heading into this week gives him a lot of confidence. Sucks for us."

Woods, chasing the record 18 major titles won by Jack Nicklaus, has not won a major crown since the 2008 US Open, when he limped through a playoff to beat Rocco Mediate, and has not won a Masters since taking his fourth in 2005.

"From a golf point of view, it's good to have Tiger playing well," World No. 3 Lee Westwood of England said. "He encourages another level of golf spectator to the game. He draws in people that might only watch the majors."

Even in the worst of his struggles, Woods was always a force at Augusta National, sharing fourth in the past two Masters, the first in his return after a post-scandal hiatus and the other last year despite suffering a left knee and tendon injury that would keep him out of the 2011 US and British Opens.

But Woods has found his form in recent weeks, sharing second last month at the Honda Classic, pulling out of a World Golf Championships event at Doral with an Achilles strain, then pulling off a long-awaited triumph at Bay Hill.

Westwood said he expected Woods to make a return but noted that even Woods could not do so unscathed.

"Obviously, when you do go through something like that, you know there is scar tissue there and you don't feel quite as bulletproof as you once were," Westwood said.

Westwood, two years older than Woods at 38, knows that Woods can be expected to be a fierce rival when leading in the final holes of a tournament if he puts himself back in that position.

"One thing is for sure about people that are winners: when they get back into the situation of trying to win a tournament, they know how to generally finish it off, or at least come close -- do the right things at the right time, having the right mind-set and attitude," Westwood said.

Woods had never lost a major when leading after 54 holes until the 2009 PGA Championship when South Korean Yang Yong-Eun overtook him in a head-to-head showdown in the last group to become Asia's first male major golf champion.

While that aura of invincibility might be tarnished, Woods again figures to be a formidable closer and might yet collect his first major title when not in the 54-hole lead.

World No. 2 Rory McIlroy, who won last year's US Open with Woods an injury absentee, is excited to face the challenge of Woods after squandering a lead on the back nine at last year's Masters.

"I'm looking forward to giving myself a chance and maybe coming up against maybe the best player ever, definitely the best player of the last 20 years," McIlroy said of Woods.

"I definitely don't have the achievements that Tiger has or nowhere near the level of success, but hopefully I can one day even get close to that point."

What Woods faces now that he did not five years ago is a new generation of young challenger that did not compete against Woods at his peak, such as McIlroy and Australian Jason Day, runner-up at last year's US Open and Masters.

"It's Tiger: 14 majors. He can get that back in a heartbeat, especially around here with the crowds," Day said. "They are on his side. If he's playing good, you'll definitely hear it. And it's kind of chilling if you do hear it."