Rejuvenated Tiger stalks 'miracle' Masters title

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Tiger Woods (AP)
Tiger Woods (AP)

Augusta - Tiger Woods calls it a miracle that he's stalking a 15th major title at Augusta National this week, just a year after he could barely sit through the Masters champions' dinner.

"It is a miracle," the 42-year-old superstar said Tuesday, less than 12 months after spinal fusion surgery.

"I don't know of anyone who has had a lower back fusion that can swing the club as fast as I can swing it. That's incredible."

It certainly wasn't what Woods was expecting when he opted for the fusion, after three prior procedures that failed to relieve debilitating nerve pain.

"I thought prior to the fusion surgery that that's pretty much it. I'll have a nice, comfortable and great life, but I'll never be able to swing the club like I used to speed-wise, just there's no way."

But Woods has astonished in his latest return from injury - so much so that he's among the favorites to win the first major championship of the season, which tees off on Thursday.

"Obviously, he knows how to win, he's not scared when he's in the situation of in contention on the weekends," said world number eight Rickie Fowler, Woods's neighbor in Jupiter, Florida, who has seen Woods progress from tentative putting and chipping at home late last year to contending this season on the US PGA Tour.

"He's going to win at some point. I think that's pretty clear to everyone with the way he's played and continued to get better."

Woods counts four Masters titles among his 14 majors. His litany of injuries and abortive comebacks have largely quashed expectations that he would surpass Jack Nicklaus's record total of 18.

Woods admits that his efforts to return to competition the past two years while still battling back pain were "a big pipe dream".

"My back was fried," he said. "I was trying, whether it was cortisone shots, epidurals, anything to take away the pain so maybe I might be able to withstand a week. Nothing worked. My disk was gone."

Woods's April forays to Augusta National the past two years were bittersweet pre-tournament appearances only.

In 2016 he was saddened to see the declining health of Arnold Palmer and last year he was in such pain he could barely sit through the annual dinner shared by past winners.

"My nerve was on fire, it was going down my leg and it was just burning," Woods recalled.

Now playing "pain-free," Woods has gone from strength to strength since returning to action in the unofficial Hero World Challenge in December.

He posted a runner-up finish at the USPGA Tour's Valspar Championship and a tie for fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The sight of Woods, clad in trademark red and black, contending for a title on Sunday, has electrified golf fans and recaptured the attention of those who know Woods more for the personal indiscretions that wrecked his marriage, sent sponsors fleeing and made him tabloid fodder back in 2009.

Woods made headlines for the wrong reasons again last May, eventually pleading guilty to driving under the influence of prescription drugs.

Now, he says, he feels better than he has in "seven or eight years".

"I feel fantastic," Woods said. It's just a matter of now going out there and competing and playing and posting numbers."

But the 42-year-old Woods knows adding to the Masters titles he won in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005 is no slam dunk.

The 82nd edition of the tournament sees not only a raft of 20-something players -- including major winners Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas -- in form but also 47-year-old Phil Mickelson leading a charge of proven champions.

"I have four rounds to play, so let's just kind of slow down," said Woods, a master at managing out-sized expectations.

He recalled the anticipation preceding the 2001 Masters, where a victory would make him the first golfer to hold all four major titles simultaneously.

"It's the same thing," he said. "I've got to play and let the chips fall where they may. Hopefully, I end up on top."

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