Excitement builds over Tiger's return to Masters field



Anticipation built Sunday around Augusta National for Tiger Woods returning to the Masters, ticket scalpers already offering prized passes to the unfolding drama at the year's first major golf tournament.

Players traveled Magnolia Lane to the clubhouse on the eve of Monday's first official pratice session for the 82nd Masters, where 14-time major winner Woods will try for a fifth green jacket after his fourth back operation.

"I'm just there to win," Woods said in a posting on his website this week.

"I've been better with each week I've competed. A little more crisp. I'm starting to put the pieces together."

Woods missed his third Masters in four years last year after spinal fusion surgery, but has contended in his past two starts, sharing fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and second at the Valspar Championship.

"It's fantastic what we're seeing of Tiger. He looks in control of his game," said Britain's Justin Rose, last year's Masters runner-up.

Woods, who at a low point doubted he would ever play competitive golf again, has seen interest in his comeback tale at age 42 send resale prices for Masters badges soaring several thousand dollars above face value.

"I got a second chance on life," Woods said. "I am a walking miracle."

Woods hasn't won a major since the 2008 US Open, hasn't won a tournament since the 2013 WGC Bridgestone Invitational, hasn't played in a major since missing the cut at the 2015 PGA Championship and last won the Masters in 2005.

"I'm just really looking forward to playing," Woods said. "It's the best-run tournament in the world. The golf course, the patrons, the entire atmosphere -- it's a golfers heaven."

A streak of 12 rounds at par or better has shown Woods has regained his health. This week will tell if he has found the form that made him a global superstar.

"It's a lot different than the first two comebacks. He wasn't ready," said Australia's Jason Day. "He came back too soon. Now he's hitting it longer than before."

That's part of the reason some oddsmakers have made Woods the tournament favorite.

"That's kind of funny," Woods said. "Six months ago the odds were I wasn't even going to play."

Top rivals ready too

Woods played two nine-hole practice rounds two weeks ago at Augusta National, his first at the course since the final round in 2015.

"They resurfaced a few of the greens but they still look they have been there for 100 years," Woods said. "My yardage book was basically the same."

Woods, whose 79 career PGA wins are three shy of Sam Snead's all-time record, faces a world-class field with several top rivals playing their best as well.

Multiple major winners Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson plus 2017 PGA Championship winner Justin Thomas have won Masters tuneup events and reigning British Open champion Jordan Spieth, the 2015 US Open and Masters winner who was third Sunday at Houston, is peaking at the perfect time.

"I've made some big strides from my past couple of tournaments. I'm very excited for what next week holds," Spieth said. "I'll try to nail it in the next few days and try a little speed control at Augusta and hopefully I'll have a chance at the weekend."

Garcia shares a locker

Defending champion Sergio Garcia will try to become the first repeat winner of the Masters since Woods in 2001-02, having become a husband and father since ending his major drought after 73 failures, daughter Azalea named for one of his favorite Augusta National holes.

"Azalea's first flight and she did amazingly well! We made it to Augusta for @TheMasters and are excited for a very special week," Garcia's wife Angela tweeted.

Adding to the specialness of the week for Garcia was an image tweeted Sunday by Augusta National of his new Champions Locker Room plate alongside that of Spanish countryman Jose Maria Olazabal.

Last year, Olazabal sent Garcia a note for inspiration saying, "I'm not sharing my locker at the moment, and I hope that I get to do it with you."