The question lingers in the air like an odd smell for Tiger Woods, even though he has won six times in his last 20 golf tournaments and has
completed a 21/2-year run to again rise to No. 1 in the world. Does he need to win a major before he is declared all the way back?
Woods' 14th major championship victory came in the 2008 U.S. Open when he hobbled around Torrey Pines for much of the championship, including a 19-hole Monday playoff, on one leg. He hasn't won a major since, a run of 18 straight, while enduring assorted injuries and a scandal that ended his marriage.
However, as Woods prepares for Thursday's start of the Masters, he is optimistic his drought in the majors and at Augusta National Golf Club -- where he hasn't won since 2005 -- will end. Back-to-back victories last month in the World Golf Championship event at Doral and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill have boosted his confidence.
"I've gotten so much better since" last year's majors, Woods said after Bay Hill. "I've cleaned up a lot of different things in my game, and I'm very pleased with where it's come along. I've turned some of the weaknesses that I had last year into strengths, and I'm really excited about the rest of this year."
So does he think he needs to win a major before he's all the way back?
"I think that's based on opinion," he said. "I feel like I'm headed in the right direction. I'm very pleased where I've come from. From 50-plus to where I'm at is no small task, and I'd like to get to 19-plus."
The "50-plus" refers to 58, his lowest world ranking (November 2011) after the accident with his SUV two years earlier that led to revelations of his infidelity. The 19-plus represents major titles; he remains in pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' career record of 18.
"Is he going to get back to the game he had in 2000 or 2001? Probably not," said former U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, now an ESPN golf analyst. "Is he back to being a consistent contender, an intimidating figure? Yeah, I think he's very, very close to being back, in that respect. Is he back to winning majors? Well, we'll have to see."
The "process" of improvement for Woods seems to be complete. First, he had to get healthy, which he is by all accounts. With good health, he is able to practice for hours on the swing changes he has learned from his coach, Sean Foley.
For Woods at 37, the sky appears to be the limit once again.
"I don't want to be as good as I once was," he said. "No, I don't. I want to become better."
Woods once appeared destined to dominate the Masters. He won for the first time in 1997 by a record 12 strokes and picked up his fourth green jacket in 2005. Since then he has had chances; in 2011 he was tied for the lead on the back nine but finished in a tie for fourth.
Woods also won at Bay Hill in 2012, his last tournament before the Masters, but he went to Augusta with very little momentum. He did not break par in any of his four rounds and tied for 40th.
The vibe is different this year. Although Woods probably is not driving the ball as well as he would like, his iron play and his short game have been consistently good. He putted phenomenally at Bay Hill, missing just one from inside 10 feet.
Will it be enough to win a fifth green jacket? Woods hasn't won at Augusta National since the course was lengthened in 2006, which places more of a premium on accurate driving. The greens are bent grass, a different surface than in Florida, and he must be sharp given the slopes and subtle breaks. Plus the competition will be keen, headed by defending champion Bubba Watson, three-time winner Phil Mickelson, and world No. 2 Rory McIlroy.
But with Woods front and center in the conversation this week, the buzz for the Masters is that much greater.
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