Why Tiger Woods is back as a Major threat
Perhaps those most credibly placed to offer analysis on the scale of Tiger Woods's most recent achievements come from the profession of medicine rather than from golf.
When pressed on the reasons for his return to the summit of world golf, Woods will point to his physical condition almost immediately. And with good reason; four separate bouts of surgery, including a full reconstruction, on his left knee threatened to put a premature end to his career.
That knee problem has dogged Woods to various extents since his college days. It was later compounded by issues with his left Achilles. Only last year, for the first time since the mid-2000s, did Woods recover to the extent that he felt strong enough to return to the driving range after completing competitive rounds.
Woods now also looks a picture of wider contentment. His extra-marital infidelities, as revealed amid cataclysmic fallout in 2009, accelerated a drop from the heights he had reached. Four years later, the notoriously private Woods is relaxed enough in his relationship with skier Lindsey Vonn to announce it via a photoshoot last month.
"He is so happy," says Woods's close friend, Steve Stricker. "He is joking around, having a good time, and he feels good about things. He must have a lot of things in order."
The link between personal and professional harmony in the specific case of Woods is illustrated by his three wins this year that have seen him overtake Rory McIlroy at the top of the world rankings.
Nonetheless, the Masters is an example of a tournament in which Woods will face a clutch of younger players who have not experienced the fear he could induce in opponents more than a decade ago. McIlroy aside, it is debatable whether the likes of Keegan Bradley, who has already won a Major, will be intimidated by Woods on the basis of reputation alone.
"The media always make a big thing [of Woods]," says Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts. "But there are so many other players who can play these courses and tournaments."
Accustomed to being No1
For Woods to be properly proclaimed as "back", he has to end a run without a Major that stretches to 2008. Not since 2005 has he claimed a Green Jacket. Those are significant statistics – regardless of his injury and personal mitigation – if not apparently pertinent enough to deny him the tag of favourite at Augusta.
"He loves challenges," says Mark O'Meara, who developed a tight affinity with the younger Woods that remains to this day. "I consider him my younger brother and he's an amazing, gifted athlete and sooner or later, you knew he'd figure it out.
"He is back; the confidence, the mini-swagger, his desire to be No1. He is not afraid to be No1. Not that any other player is afraid, but he's accustomed to being No1."
It was also once second nature for Woods to be putting as he is doing now. His work on the greens has been the most statistically impressive on the PGA Tour this season, in offsetting an erratic driving accuracy of only 55%. There remains a potential problem with Woods's tee-to-green play, shown by him winning this year's events by narrower margins than was customary when he was in his imperious heyday.
Butch Harmon, who coached Woods between 1993 and 2004 and will again be watching his former protégé this week as an analyst for Sky Sports, believes that the change of Woods's natural shot shape is not to be ignored. "I think he can be a lot better. I think we are starting to see Tiger feel a lot more comfortable with his swing and with his ball striking. He still has to show that he can drive the ball the way he used to. He throws a lot of three woods and irons off the tee.
"It looks like his natural shot now is a normal little left-to-right fade, if you watch the practice swings he makes and the types of shots he hits. It looks like he has tried to eliminate the left side of the course to allow himself to be more consistent. When you get to Augusta, you know you've got a lot of dog-legs right to left, where he's going to have to turn the ball from right to left."
There is lingering controversy around Woods away from the course. Immediately after his return to the top of the world rankings, Nike, the player's sponsor, revealed an advert with the slogan "Winning takes care of everything" alongside a picture of Woods. That move sparked debate over whether or not Nike and Woods were being provocative in deliberately underplaying the previous misdemeanours in the 37-year-old's private life.
The reality is that a section of the American public will forever view Woods with contempt. Phil Mickelson is routinely held up as an alternative golfing figure who has a clean-cut lifestyle that commands wider respect.
Yet in a purely golfing environment, Woods is still lauded by galleries. His appearance anywhere creates unmatched ripples of excitement. Woods remains golf's blue-chip figure by some distance.
He was asked after his victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month if he had aspirations to recapture his finest touch.
The answer? "I don't want to become as good as I once was. I want to become better."
As improbable as that may seem, a winning favourite at Augusta come Sunday evening would represent an epic sporting story. – © Guardian News & Media 2013