Tiger Woods ready to resume major championship chase at The Masters
By Brendan Prunty under The Masters

David Cannon/Getty Images

AUGUSTA, Ga. — He spent his day here dressed from neck to toe in all black, looking like Johnny Cash with a Nike contract, making everyone remember the days when he presence on this golf course seemed to be good for at least a two-stroke cushion. With one win almost two weeks ago, Tiger Woods has been declared back. Ready to go. Ready to win his fifth Green Jacket. Ready to resume his chase for 18.

The crowds at Augusta National Golf Club have been buffeting his every step in the first two days with well-wishes. As he finished his nine-hole practice round Tuesday, one patron yelled for Woods to “Roar again!” He smiled.

They want him to back in time and play the greatest hits of his career. But here’s the thing this week: Tiger Woods seems to be at peace with looking ahead, rather than looking back.

“As Rob (Johnston) was saying, this is my 18th year,” Woods said. “So I’ve spent just about half my life playing this tournament.”

It’s an odd thing to ponder.

During Masters week, Woods still illicits memories of the 21-year old kid, throwing his right fist into the air as Jim Nantz yelled “A win for the ages!” into millions of homes across the country. But that was a lifetime ago. Woods is 36 now, seemingly finally putting the personal strife and injury-riddled last three years behind him.

He enters Augusta National this week with a PGA Tour win in his back pocket for the first time since 2009, but knows that he’s no longer the young buck. Sure, he’s been installed as the favorite to win on most of the betting boards. But that’s not why Woods is feeling confident these days.

It’s because he feels he’s joined the group of players who have gotten better with age inside the azaleas.

“It’s understanding how to play this golf course,” he said. “Where to miss it. I’ve gotten just umpteen amount of advice from guys who have played here way more than I have. That’s really helped. Over the years of playing with Raymond (Floyd) and Freddie (Couples) and Ollie (Jose Maria Olazabal) and Nick Price. You name it. Right down the list, of just understanding how to play this golf course.”

Those are some of the most accomplished players in the last three decades at Augusta National. Between the four players that Woods referenced as his guides to playing this course, there are four Green Jackets and 31 top-10 finishes.

“Granted, it’s changed over the years, but still, you still miss it in the same spots,” he said. “Just understanding how to do that has really helped me over the years and I think that’s one of the reasons why you see so many guys here. The older players are in contention a lot, but they just know how to play it.”

Woods is hoping that only four years away from turning 40, he can still drum up that same muscle memory.

This has always been a place that has seemed tailor-made for his game. Only three times has he finished outside of the top-20: In his debut in 1995 as an amateur, when he missed the cut in 1996 and when he finished in a tie for 22nd place in 2004. He is currently on a string of six straight top-six finishes here, enduring his longest drought ever at Augusta National.

But if there was any doubt that Woods is giving way to the next wave of players, he swiftly put that on ice. He was asked about the potential impact of tying another Jack Nicklaus mark — second-most PGA Tour wins, with 73 — by doing it at The Masters.

“I’d like the Green Jacket more,” Woods said firmly. “I know the 73 would be a by-product of it, but I’m here for the Green Jacket.”

Contributor Brendan Prunty is the golf writer for the Newark Star-Ledger in New Jersey. He can be reached at bprunty@starledger.com and can be followed at Twitter.com/BrendanPrunty. This is his second Masters tournament.