Tiger's coming back, but which Tiger?

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Tiger Woods will return to competitive golf at Augusta National ... again.

In a statement posted on his website Friday, Woods explained, “It’s obviously very important to me, and I want to be there. ... I’ve worked a lot on my game and I’m looking forward to competing. I’m excited to get to Augusta and I appreciate everyone’s support.”

While the Masters doesn’t exactly scream “ease your way back into it,” Woods has been here before, back in 2010 following another self-imposed hiatus from the game. After five months away from the playing field he tied for fourth place. It was his best finish, along with a T-4 at the U.S. Open, that season.

While he’s talked about the importance of “reps” in recent years, after 74 tournament trips around the old fruit nursery Woods has proven himself open, and adept, at heading down Magnolia Lane cold.



But as news surfaced early Tuesday that Woods’ Gulfstream G5 had been spotted at an Augusta, Ga., airport, the question turned from whether the former world No. 1 would play the year’s first men’s major to how he will fare.

According to various reports that first test drive didn’t go well – Golfweek reported he shot 74 on Tuesday – and that likely prompted a mulligan on Friday, when Woods returned to Augusta National for a second scouting trip.

He hasn’t hit a shot that counted since walking off Torrey Pines’ North Course 11 holes into the opening round at the Farmers Insurance Open in February with a tight lower back.

A few days later Woods revealed via his website that the injury “is not related to my previous surgery,” and that he needed “a lot of work on my game.”

It was all new territory. Going behind the ivory gates to rest and recover from injury is one thing. Going on lockdown to relearn how to hit a two-skip-and-stop chip is an entirely different matter altogether.

As best as anyone can tell he’s spent the last month and a half searching for answers, short game and otherwise, in the South Florida dirt, conferring with swing consultant Chris Como and confidant Notah Begay.

Last week Begay said there was a “50-50” chance Woods would play the Masters, but that number always seemed low.

Last year Woods missed the Masters for the first time as a professional after undergoing back surgery for a pinched nerve and he never seemed to have squared himself with that decision.

Augusta National, more than any other venue, has always been central to the Tiger narrative even before he slipped a skinny arm into a green jacket for the first time in 1997.

“Arnold [Palmer] and I both agreed, that you could take his Masters and my Masters, and add them together, and this kid should win more than that,” Jack Nicklaus said ... in 1996, a year before Woods won for the first time at Augusta National.

Nickalus won six Masters. Palmer collected four. You do the math.

For a time that prediction seemed famously foreboding, with Woods winning three times in his first nine trips down Magnolia Lane as a professional, including that 12-stroke romp in ’97.

But things started to change, slowly as they always do at Augusta National. Officials began the process of “Tiger-proofing” the course with the first significant changes in 2001 and his advantage, either real or perceived, began to wane.

Next week will mark a decade since Woods last emerged victorious on a Masters Sunday and the memories of that epic duel with Chris DiMarco in ’05 have been clouded by near-misses in 2007 and ’08.

More recent accounts are of epically bad bounces and curious drops (2013), poor ballstriking (2012) and untimely miscues (2011) have become Woods’ Masters highlight reel for a generation.

Still, even during his prolonged winter Augusta National has always brought out the best in Woods – who is ranked outside the top 100 in the world. He has finished in the top five more times (six) than not (two) since 2006. It’s why Nicklaus, who is not prone to hyperbole, made that bold prediction all those years ago and why it always seemed destined to be Augusta National where Woods went back on the clock.

“When Tiger was younger we would talk about, ‘You’re going to win this thing so many times it’s unreal,’” said Butch Harmon, Woods’ swing coach for eight of his 14 major victories. “The golf course suited him because of how far he could hit it and how far he drove the ball in those days. Rory [McIlroy] is like that now.”

Of course he would emerge from hibernation just as the azaleas went to bloom. The only real question is which guy would make the trip – the champion who won three times in his first nine starts or the perennial bridesmaid for the last decade?