Tiger Woods looks to cap incredible comeback with 5th green jacket

Photo of Tiger Woods looks to cap incredible comeback with 5th green jacket
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A year ago, Tiger Woods could barely sit down at the Champions Dinner, the gathering of all former Masters winners on the Tuesday evening of Masters week.

He admitted his back was "fried." But how he feels now is "like night and day" compared to April 2017.

Woods, who has been through the highest of highs in sport and the lowest of lows away from it - addiction, substance abuse, rehab, hacked personal photos, the death of his father, an arrest, a divorce - told reporters at Augusta National he’s feeling better than he has in "seven or eight years."

Woods has gone from being the biggest question mark in sports to the biggest statement-maker. He’s in the conversation to not just stay upright for 18 holes, but to compete for his fifth green jacket.

"Part of being an athlete is dealing with pain," Woods told reporters Tuesday. "Unfortunately, we were pushing the boundaries of our bodies and minds, and unfortunately, a lot of times we go over the edge and we break down. But thank God there is modern science to fix us and put us back together again."

Woods had spinal fusion surgery less than a year ago, the fourth procedure on his oft-injured back. But this one, he said, was going to be it. He admitted Tuesday that prior to the surgery, he thought his career was essentially over.

"I'll have a nice, comfortable, and great life, but I'll never be able to swing the club like I used to speed-wise," he recollected.

He was half-right.

He isn't swinging the golf club like he had in recent years - he’s swinging again like he was in his mid-20s, routinely hitting 129 mph in swing speed with his driver.

Woods is the real-life equivalent of young Henry Rowengartner from the 1993 movie "Rookie of the Year." In it, Rowengartner slips on a baseball and the tendons of his throwing arm fuse together to give him an unnaturally fast pitching ability, and then he goes on to lead the Chicago Cubs to the World Series.

It may just be a movie, but with Woods’ good play of late, he may be bringing the freak injury-turned-success story to life.

And if there were a real-life place that dramatic script was going to come to fruition, it would be Augusta National.

After Woods’ marital scandal became public knowledge in 2009 he retreated home and out of the public eye. But when it was time to make his return, he chose Augusta and the 2010 Masters.

He finished tied for fourth that year.

In 2015, he could barely walk, and came to the Masters after having made a mockery of his short game at the Waste Management Phoenix Open a few months prior.

He ended up in one of the final four pairings on Sunday, and finished tied for 17th. He’s only finished outside the top 20 at Augusta three times in his life, and once was when he was an amateur.

Kyle Porter of CBS Sports writes that in 2018, Woods is playing good golf "not because we want him to be good, or because he used to be good, or because he wears red and black and we identify those colors with being good, but he is good in 2018 because he is good."

Woods is fifth on the PGA Tour in Scoring Average this year and third in Putting Average. He’s just playing good golf, as Porter writes, and not because golf fans are willing him to do that. It’s because he just is.

But in order to win this week Woods is going to have to beat a generation of golfers who were inspired by him and were bred in the golfing image he provided the world for the better part of 15 years.

"I don’t feel like it’s been that long that I’ve been out here competing and playing. I know it's gone by super fast. A lot of these kids have ... some of their first memories are when I won my last major," said Woods.

He added: "It’s flattering, it's nice, but I still want to compete and beat these guys."

Justin Thomas has grown close to Woods in their south Florida neighborhood and is a frequent guest of Woods’ restaurant in Jupiter. He’s been lucky enough to pick Woods’ brain on a number of matters over the last few years, but he’s noticed something different of late.

"Tiger’s probably going to be a little bit more ... a little harder to get stuff out of than he was when he was hurt," Thomas told reporters Monday, smiling.

He knows.

Woods explained on his personal blog in late March the sole reason why he was eager to tee it up at the Masters this week.

"I’m just there to win," he wrote.

He’s got to take down some of the worlds best to do it - this is the most wide-open Masters in years, he admitted - but the roars are back, and the cheers for Woods are a little different.

"You don’t usually hear roars on a Monday," said Thomas of Woods, who chipped in on the par-5 second during his first practice round of the week, and who followed that up by making eagle on the par-5 13th and par-5 15th on Tuesday, prompting more cheers from the patrons.

But just being here is a miracle in itself.

"I thought prior to the fusion surgery, that was pretty much it," he said. "We know we’re going to have to play well in order to win (this week), but it’s going to be fun."

Adam Stanley has written about golf since 2011 for PGATOUR.com, LPGA.com, and the Canadian Press, among other organizations. He's also a frequent contributor to The Globe and Mail. Find him on Twitter @adam_stanley.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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