AUGUSTA, Ga. — He's back.
Here it comes, the opposite of going out on a limb: Tiger Woods is the most likely winner of this week's Masters. When I say he's back, I don't mean that I guarantee he's going to win his fifth Masters this week. Four lipped-out putts — or a Phil Mickelson onslaught — could change that in a heartbeat. But I've seen enough from Tiger in the last six months, and heard enough on Tuesday, to be convinced.
Assuming he stays healthy, Tiger is going to win more tournaments and more major championships and yes, at least one more Masters. It will happen sooner or later. Forced to wager, I'd take sooner and give the points.
There are only two things you really need to study to understand where Tiger's game is right this minute, two days before he tees it up with Miguel Angel Jimenez and Sang-Moon Bae: the way he played in his blowout win at Bay Hill two weeks ago, and what he said at Augusta National on Tuesday.
Woods didn't muster even a hint of a satisfied smile when he told a roomful of the world's golfing media that he has more shots now than he did in 2000, his greatest year of golf. For overall consistency, Woods added, he's hitting it as well now as he did then. He said it so matter-of-factly that it should be scary to his competition. He doesn't think he's ready to win the Masters this week, he knows it.
"I'm driving the ball much better than I have," he said. "I've got some heat behind it, and it's very straight. My iron game is improving… As far as controlling the ball, yeah, I feel like I'm hitting the ball just as consistently day-in and day-out as I did then."
Then, you may recall, included four major championships in a row, a feat so singular that it earned its own name — the Tiger Slam.
Sometimes things are almost too obvious, like Kentucky winning the NCAA basketball championship. The Wildcats were the best team, by far, and the question shouldn't have been, Could Kentucky beat an NBA team? It should have been, Could Kansas beat an NBA team? That's what they were facing in the championship game. It used to be the same on the PGA Tour. There was Tiger, and everyone else.
This has the feel of a milestone Masters. Mickelson has revived his putting and looks once again like a guy who can win anywhere, anytime. Luke Donald won the Transitions and has regained the No. 1 ranking. Lee Westwood has never been fitter and looks as if he's gone all-in this year in his drive to win a major. Hunter Mahan is reaching his potential. Young stars like Kyle Stanley, who hits it a mile and has Vijay Singh's lunch-pail work ethic, are making a name for themselves.
But most of all, there's Rory McIlroy. The world's golf writers have fallen hard for Rory. He's friendly and charming and open and pleasant — all the things Tiger has never been. Last year Rory had his memorable Masters meltdown followed by a rising-from-adversity romp at the U.S. Open. The media saw it as a changing-of-the-guard moment, what with Tiger's game and body apparently in tatters. The media has decreed this Masters as the official start of the Rory-Tiger rivalry, but that's almost certainly wrong. Even young Rory knows this isn't about him vs. Tiger. "It's not about two or three guys; there are 80-plus players in this field," he said. "Every guy has to think about himself and play the course as best he can. That's all you can do in any tournament."
Actually, this is the same old rivalry, Tiger vs. Everyone, The Sequel. And it's only a matter of time, possibly a matter of days, before we resume Tiger vs. Jack's 18 major titles, a story we were once sure we'd write, then sure we would never write.
The signs are there. Tiger repeated his favorite new cliché here Tuesday when he talked about the state of his game and his gradual improvement being "a process." Dull stuff, as usual, from the man who doesn't like to give away anything to anyone. But it's accurate. We've seen Tiger slowly rebuild his game from the ground up. He showed signs of superior ballstriking at the Presidents Cup in November, then showed a little of his old clutch form when he won a PGA Tour-sanctioned golf outing in December that Tiger hosts and insists on counting as a W. Even if winning an 18-man outing was something of a mirage (OK, totally a mirage), it worked for Tiger's confidence, and that was enough.
There was that closing 62 at the Honda Classic that put a scare into McIlroy, and moments of contending in the Middle East and at Pebble Beach.
"I've been putting together two good rounds, eventually three and now four," Woods said Tuesday, "so I just had to keep sticking with it. You can see the numbers. I've been in contention the end of last year and most of this year. I'm just continuing the process."
This week, his swing looks better than it has since his pre-Hank Haney days, and his ballstriking at Bay Hill backed up that observation. (Tiger's quote about hitting it the best he has in years, with Sean Foley's help, was also a dig at Haney's legacy.)
Take another look at Bay Hill in the rearview mirror. Most of the field finished more than a touchdown behind Woods. Even Graeme McDowell, playing his best golf since his U.S. Open victory, couldn't keep up with him through the final nine and finished five shots back. This is how Tiger used to play, remember? At his best, he was unbeatable. Playing well, he usually won. Playing average, he still had a chance.
Take another look at the last two Masters in the rearview mirror. Tiger's game was in shambles, he had no discernible confidence or swing thoughts, and there were distractions galore, including an impertinent skywriter. Playing on guts and guile and whatever's behind the façade of Tiger Woods, he finished fourth twice. Now he's got a swing and a short game straight out of 2001 — a golf odyssey may be on deck.
"People are quick to forget," McIlroy said. He reminded writers about Tiger's winning the 2008 U.S. Open on one good leg, and that Woods can do things that others can't. "You don't win 14 majors and 70-odd PGA Tour events for nothing, you know."
To bounce back from where Tiger has been, McIlroy said, takes time. At 22 (he'll turn 23 next month), McIlroy's time is coming.
Starting this week, it may well be Tiger's time once more. Whatever happens, it'll be a Masters to remember.