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The new Tiger Woods: More laughs and the clear favorite to end Masters drought

Tiger Woods
Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images
Tiger Woods enters the week ranked No. 1 and chasing his fifth career green jacket.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The Masters has been called the Augusta Spring Putting Championship; Tiger Woods leads the Tour in strokes gained putting. No player has won as many as two Tour events in 2013; Woods has won three. Rory McIlroy has seen his thrilling reign swiftly decommissioned; Woods is the new No. 1.

Everything is coming up azaleas for Woods as he aims for his fifth green jacket and 15th major championship at the 77th Masters at Augusta National.

"I'm pleased with the progress I've made," he said as he met the media for just over a half hour Tuesday, a press conference in which he was asked about his newfound lightness of being ("I feel very balanced"), his goatee, the 14-year-old Chinese amateur Tianlang Guan, and becoming an honorary starter -- someday.

"Okay, what's the minimum age, 70-plus?" Woods said, smiling. "Who's the youngest, Jack?" (Nicklaus, 73, is in fact the youngest among fellow honorary starters Arnold Palmer, 83, and Gary Player, 77.) "Man, that's a long time. Let me just try to get to 40 first." Several reporters broke up laughing.

It's been a long time since Woods, 37, won a major, at the 2008 U.S. Open, and longer since he won his last Masters in '05. Much has happened: Woods has had his left knee rebuilt and his double life exposed. He's gotten divorced, replaced his voluble caddie, changed coaches, moved and played with President Obama.

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising, then, that he hasn't won at Augusta.

"I didn't realize it's been that long," said Steve Stricker, who gave Woods an impromptu putting lesson at Doral earlier this year, before Woods took just 100 putts, his fewest over 72 holes, en route to winning the WGC-Cadillac. "And everything about this course is suited for his game. So yeah, it's surprising."

Woods has come close here: a T3 in '06, a T2 in '07, second alone in '08. The only time he finished out of the top 10 the last four years was his T40 in 2012.

"I was there, ball-striking wise, a few years through that stretch, where I think I hit it pretty well," he said. "Hit a lot of greens, but just didn't make enough putts. I was there on Sundays with a chance, and unfortunately just didn't get it done. As we all know, you have to putt well here."

Just as he did at Doral, Woods excelled on the greens at Bay Hill, leading the field in putting as he picked up his third victory of 2013. He is golf's headliner again, back to where he was before his life came apart at the seams. What other player is asked if he's won a major with a goatee?

"Never won a major with a goatee, no," he said, smiling. "Because it takes a long time for this thing to grow, you know -- a long time."

This will be Woods's 19th Masters, and if he wants to play with a goatee, you've got to figure he can win with one. He's won with Fluff Cowan on the bag, Steve Williams on the bag, and now with Joe LaCava on the bag. He's won under coach Butch Harmon, coach Hank Haney, and now coach Sean Foley.

What endures, always, is Woods himself and the incandescent talent that has shone since he was Guan's age and younger. He's been taking a slow, studied approach to this Masters, having played 18 holes on Easter, March 31, and 14 more upon his arrival Sunday, starting with a hug for new member Condi Rice before touring the course with Stricker and U.S. Am Public Links champion T.J. Vogel.

Woods played nine more holes Monday, when he was joined by Dustin Johnson and Guan -- whom Woods called "so consistent" and "spot-on" with his hybrids -- and went to work on his game after his press conference Tuesday. He called himself less flexible but "far more explosive" at 37 than he was at 19, and likened himself to an older Michael Jordan refining his fade-away jump shot.

Has Tiger changed, as his inner circle would have you believe? Is he truly happier? And if so, is Woods happier because he's putting better, or is he making more putts because his happiness doesn't depend on making them?

"Well, I think life is all about having a balance," he said, "and trying to find equilibrium and not getting things one way or the other, and I feel very balanced."

He offered nothing further, but asked to expound on his newfound balance later in the press conference, Woods, a single father of two, spoke of "a beautiful juggling act" that has left him time to work on his game and play with his kids, daughter Sam, 5, and son, Charlie, 4, often at his lush, backyard practice facility. He has publicly acknowledged a romance with Olympic gold medal-winning skier Lindsey Vonn, and friends say he is older and wiser and treating people better.

Woods tees off with Luke Donald and Scott Piercy at 10:45 a.m. Thursday, and while the obvious question is whether he'll win, a larger point is coming into focus, that this might be the most winning version of Woods we've ever seen.

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