AUGUSTA (AFP) – Elder statesman status is all very well, but 14-time major champion Tiger Woods hasn’t battled back from four back surgeries just to make up the numbers at the Masters.
“I still want to compete, and I want to beat these guys,” the 42-year-old superstar said as he looked forward to his first Masters in three years, and his first major start since missing the cut at the 2015 PGA Championship.
Woods’s promising return from spinal fusion surgery last April has galvanized a golf world eager to see if he can resume his chase to break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major titles.
Woods’s rivals in a talent-laden Masters field aren’t immune.
The build-up to the Masters has featured an array of 20-something players describing the Tigeresque feats that inspired them to pursue competitive golf.
The possibility that they could find themselves head-to-head against an in-form Woods come Sunday is “an extra motivation for everybody” says world number three Jon Rahm, a 22-year-old from Spain.
“Tiger’s earned the attention. He’s been the biggest needle-mover in the game, and it’s going to be tough for anyone to come close to that,” said world number eight Rickie Fowler.
Woods teed off yesterday alongside Australian Marc Leishman and England’s Tommy Fleetwood.
“The first real Masters I watched was 1997, when he won his first,” Fleetwood, 27, recalled. “A few years on and I get to play with him and I don’t think you can get a better draw than Tiger at the Masters.”
Woods’s compelling comeback bid isn’t the only story in a Masters shaping up to be a classic.
Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, who could complete a career Grand Slam with a first Masters victory, teed up alongside Rahm and former Masters champion Adam Scott of Australia.
World number two Justin Thomas, the reigning US PGA Tour Player of the Year, can overtake Dustin Johnson atop the world rankings with a victory.
Johnson, who has reigned at number one for more than a year, has catching up to do after a pre-tournament slip on the stairs forced him out of last year’s Masters at the 11th hour.
Spain’s Sergio Garcia, who ended nearly two decades of major futility with his victory here last year, faces an uphill battle to retain the title – a feat only Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Woods have accomplished.
Britain’s Justin Rose, whose playoff loss to Garcia was his second runner-up finish in three years, arrives in fine form while 2015 champion Jordan Spieth hopes he has solved the putting woes that have dogged him this season in time to tame Augusta’s daunting greens.
On an Augusta National course where experience is always at a premium, two-time champion Bubba Watson has thrust himself into the mix with two victories already this year.
And 47-year-old Phil Mickelson, who numbers three green jackets among his five major titles, suddenly looks like a real contender after winning his first title in nearly five years at the WGC Mexico Championship.
Mickelson could become the oldest player to win the Masters, supplanting Jack Nicklaus who was 46 when he won in 1986.
“It’s hard for me to believe,” Mickelson said. “I remember watching it when I was in high school and how hard I pulled for him and how much I loved that Masters.”
Mickelson and Woods, known for a somewhat prickly relationship when each was at his peak, speak with nothing but respect for each other these days.
Mickelson, who has contended with his own health issues in the form of psoriatic arthritis, said there was no reason a fit Woods can’t contend, even if he hasn’t won a tournament since 2013.
“I know that he had a big challenge, but the game for him looks easy,” Mickelson said. “He’s got the shot-making and he’s already hit all these great shots for so many years that I would think it would be easier to get it back than to find it for the first time.”