AUGUSTA, Ga. Here are the words you didn't think you'd hear this weekend, the words you didn't dare believe you would hear this weekend or, for some, the words you hoped you'd never hear this weekend: Tiger Woods is the man to beat at the Masters.
\nThat five-month exile from tournament golf, including a stint in rehab for an unspecified problem, really slowed Tiger down. He shot 68 in Thursday's opening round, made two eagles, and had at least four putts that could've-should've fallen in. It was a round that could easily have been 64. Or better. On Friday, the greens at Augusta National got faster, the pin locations got tougher and the winds got swirly. Tiger shot a 70 in which he struck it better and putted better than he did on Thursday. Woods is at six under par, tied for third place. After 36 holes, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood are the only players standing between the No. 1-ranked player on the planet and a fifth green jacket.
\nLet's check their major championship totals: Tiger 14, Poulter-Westwood combo platter 0.
\nThose who figured all that time off combined with all the distractions that come with being the world's most famous celebrity who is entangled in a juicy sex scandal would cause Tiger to struggle on golf's biggest stage were wrong. The improvement from Thursday to Friday in how he feels about his game is what should worry the rest of the Masters contenders.
\n"I felt I had more control of the ball today and hit putts on my line, which I didn't do yesterday," Woods said. "I feel very good, very comfortable."
\nIn other words, he feels exactly how his challengers hoped he wouldn't feel at this point.
\nThe reality is the world's best golfer didn't forget how to play during his hiatus. He looks ready to win and he sounds ready to win. What's left to do? Just win. And we can be pretty sure he remembers how to do that. He's had enough practice. Five months of suspense, mystery and curiosity have been answered. Tiger is still Tiger. Sorry about that, rest of the world.
"I felt I could put myself in contention," Woods said. "I just had to be more focused in my practice sessions."
\nDoors open, doors close. Why does it feel like this door is about to slam shut? True, it's way too early to slip the green jacket over Tiger's shoulders. Somebody could go all Y.E. Yang and outplay Woods on the weekend, as happened at Hazeltine last August at the PGA Championship. Tiger could still go awry. No major test of golf is as riddled with danger as Augusta National.
Tiger knows that as well as anyone. He also hasn't forgotten how to think his way around a golf course. He proved that when he got to the par-5 13th hole, had 218 yards to the front of the green from the middle of the fairway and decided to lay up. "I could get there with a 5-wood but the wind was all over the place," Tiger said by way of explanation. "The wind was just dancing too much."
\nSo Woods played out to the right to get the best angle and still had a dicey 61-yard approach to a back pin. "If you land it near the flag, it'll bounce right over the back," he said. So he got a little cautious with his shot, left it well short, but made the birdie putt anyway.
\nHis swing doesn't look rusty. His putting doesn't look rusty. His mental game doesn't look rusty. The only thing that's tarnished on Planet Tiger is his reputation, not his record. Another Masters championship would add to the latter but probably not repair the former.
\nTiger didn't answer all of the questions the world wanted to ask him this week including just what was he thinking but he answered a very big one. The best player in the world, possibly the best player of all time, is back. He is still Tiger Woods and like it or not, he is the man to beat at the Masters this weekend. Again.