Tiger says he’s back in The Masters ‘… to win’

Every other time Tiger Woods came back from an injury, he claimed he was in winning mode right from the start.

This time, since he returned from back fusion surgery in November for the Target World Challenge in the Bahamas, Woods has been saying that it’s all about figuring out what he is capable of doing with his is patched-up 42-year-old body.

Until this week.

“I’m just here to win,” Woods said when he showed up at Augusta National Golf Club to prepare for the Masters, which starts Thursday.

Woods counts four Masters titles (1997, 2001, 2002, 2005) among his 14 major titles, the last of those coming in the 2008 U.S. Open in an epic playoff against Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines.

“I’m just really looking forward to playing,” said Woods, who has missed three of the last four Masters because of injuries. “It’s the best run tournament in the world. The golf course, the patrons, the entire atmosphere. It’s a golfer’s heaven. … The course is in fantastic shape. My yardage book is basically the same.”

There was a buzz on the grounds at Augusta National from the time Woods showed up late last week, but it reached an early and surprising crescendo on Tuesday when Tiger and Phil Mickelson teamed up for a nine-hole match against 1992 Masters champion Fred Couples and young gun Thomas Pieters of Belgium.

They played the back nine, and even though it wasn’t exactly like they were making their way through Amen Corner on Sunday, everyone was into it.

“I never thought I’d see the day, Tiger and Phil playing a practice round at Augusta,” Rory McIlroy said with a touch of awe about the pairing of the two giants of their generation, who for most of the careers were not-so-friendly rivals.

The crowds were swarming around Rae’s Creek, trying to get into position for the first of the two par-5 holes on the back nine, No. 13, and those who got the best vantage points were rewarded when Woods pulled a bit of magic out of the past.

Tiger hit a majestic soft, high approach shot to within 15 feet of the hole and when he sank the putt, suddenly one of those famous Augusta roars wafted through the pines. Two holes later on the second par 5, Woods hit his approach to within five feet and buried a second eagle putt.

“We were two up after two, and then it didn’t go so well after that,” said Couples, who arranged the match. “They certainly enjoyed beating us badly. Come Sunday, they may be paired together.”

Said the Mickelson, 47, who has three Masters titles (2004, 2006, 2010) among his five major championships: “We partnered up and had some fun. Watching him eagle 13 and 15, and I made a few birdies in there. We had a five‑hole stretch where we were 7‑under. That was some fun play.”

Mickelson comes into the Masters in good from, having captured the WGC-Mexico Championship in a playoff over red-hot Justin Thomas last month for his first victory since the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield.

Even though Woods has yet to win in his latest comeback, he finished 12th in the Honda Classic, tied for second in the Valspar Championship and tied for fifth in the Arnold Palmer Invitational in his last three starts.

Masters favorites include Thomas, McIlroy, top-ranked Dustin Johnson, defending champion Sergio Garcia of Spain, Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson, Justin Rose of England, Rickie Fowler, Paul Casey of England, Jason Day of Australia and Jon Rahm of Spain, all in their primes.

But wouldn’t be something if Woods and Mickelson find themselves in the hunt down the stretch on Sunday.

Every golf fan remembers perhaps the most memorable Masters of them all in 1986, when Jack Nicklaus claimed the last of his record 18 major titles at the ripe old age of 46 at the expense of Greg Norman of Australia and Seve Ballesteros of Spain, among the best players of their generation.

Could there be a sequel?


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