Augusta - Tiger Woods arrived at Augusta National on Tuesday, but only for the Masters Champions Dinner, while Jack Nicklaus warned Woods would someday mount a late-career comeback to rival his own.
The golf legends gathered with fellow Masters winners for their annual meal with Woods relegated to a visitor role, unable to play six months after the second of two back operations.
"I'm doing better and making progress, but unfortunately, still not physically ready to play. I look forward to being out there again as soon as I can," Woods said in a Tuesday posting on his website.
"Despite not playing in the tournament, I really wanted to attend this year's Champions Dinner. There are a lot of close, long-time friends in that room."
Among those is Nicklaus, the 18-time major champion whose record total has been a target for Woods, a 14-time major winner, since boyhood.
Nicklaus spoke before the dinner and said Woods, who turned 40 last December, will not only return but be a champion again.
"I don't think he's done," Nicklaus said. "I think Tiger's going to win more tournaments."
While Woods has sounded more optimistic lately, he cast doubt on his own potential to return last December, saying, "Pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy. For my 20 years out here I think I've achieved a lot, and if that's all it entails, then I've had a pretty good run. But I'm hoping that's not it."
Nicklaus, who won two major titles at age 40 in 1980 and became the oldest Masters champion in 1986 at age 46, said that was Woods just downplaying expectations.
"That's probably an easier answer than, 'I'm going to get back out there next week,' and really doing it," Nicklaus said. "He's probably tired of saying that. If he says the other, then all of sudden everybody writes him off for a while.
"And then he's going to show up for his '1980' and his '1986.' I think he'll show up for that a little bit."
Woods has not won a major title since the 2008 US Open. His 69 career PGA titles are three shy of Sam Snead's all-time record.
Nicklaus and Gary Player will hit the ceremonial tee shots to open the Masters on Thursday without Arnold Palmer, their fellow honorary starter, who said he would join them at the first tee but not be swinging a club.
"We'll miss Arnold as far as hitting the golf ball," Nicklaus said. "I have a sneaking suspicion, if Arnold wants to, he will be welcome to hit a ball. Whether he will or not, I don't know. We'll miss him on the first tee, but Gary and I will try to do the best we can without him."