AUGUSTA: Tiger Woods, who once tolerated no distractions at Augusta National while focused on winning the Masters, now embraces them, smiling and joking with family and friends where he once prized privacy.
With an engaging demeanor, the 14-time major winner offered a glimpse into the frustrations and high points of his comeback fight, a two-month layoff that ends in Thursday’s (Friday in Manila) first round of the 79th Masters.
“I’m just enjoying just competing again,” Woods said. “Whether I have blinders on or not, I don’t feel any different. I feel like I’m preparing to try and win the Masters.
“I’m excited to be back playing at this level. I feel like my game is finally ready to compete at the highest level.”
At age 39, Woods has not won a major since the 2008 US Open and last lifted the Masters green jacket in 2005. But this isn’t your father’s Tiger Woods. This is Tiger Woods, the father.
“I’m feeling older, there’s no doubt about that,” Woods said. “Try chasing around six- and seven-year-olds all day, you start feeling it. But the good news is my soccer game has gotten a lot better.”
Woods’ girlfriend, US ski star Lindsey Vonn, and his children from his first marriage, Sam Alexis and Charlie, greeted him on the putting range. His son and daughter will serve as his caddies in Wednesday’s Par-3 Contest, which he has often skipped to focus on the Masters.
This year Woods will embrace the fun on the same course where his late father watched him rewrite the record book in an epic 1997 first major victory.
“It’s special,” Woods said. “We all know what happened in ’97 with my dad’s health… To now have come full circle and to have a chance to have my kids out there and be able to share that with them, it’s special. It’s nice to be able to share these things with my family. It just means the world to me.”
Woods danced to hip-hop music in a Masters workout just as he did in his hours of private practice sessions to work on his swing issues and chipping woes. He hugged pals he had not seen for a while, mindful of having missed last year’s Masters after back surgery.
“It’s nice to be back and see some of my old friends,” Woods said.
‘I worked my ass off’
And the former world number one now ranked 111th displayed quality shotmaking in his first public rounds since withdrawing at Torrey Pines two months ago, his short game in disarray.
“I needed to have all facets of my game come around. They all have,” Woods said. “We’ve spent a lot of time, a lot of work on this and it has finally paid off.
“I worked my ass off. That’s the easiest way to kind of describe it. I worked hard.
“People would never understand how much work I put into it to come back and do this again. It was sunup to sundown and whenever I had free time. If the kids were asleep, I’d still be doing it and when they were in school, I’d still be doing it. So it was a lot of work.”
His balky back, fickle in the year since surgery kept him from playing the 2014 Masters, should not be a worry, Woods said.
“It just gets sore also bending over and hitting so many putts,” Woods said. “But just had to get through it. Had my therapist there and he worked on me and it was all good and ready to go. I had no structural damage, no structural issues. It was just the fact that my muscles got fatigued.”
So did his confidence.
“There were a few clubs that flew, suddenly slipped out of my hand and traveled some pretty good distances,” Woods said. “There were some frustrating moments but had to stick with it.
Form returns in flashes
“I knew what I could do and just wasn’t able to do it. It would come in flashes. I would get in these modes where it would come for 10 minutes and I would just have it dialed in and then I’d lose it for an hour and then I’d get it back.”
Now Woods is dealing with a generation he helped inspire, such as 21-year-old rising US star Jordan Spieth.
“I won the Masters when Jordan was still in diapers,” Woods said. “That’s the difference is that guys are now younger, a whole other generation of kids are coming out. And the game has gotten bigger.”