(Reuters) - Tiger Woods has regained his golfing mojo because his artistic talents are combining with his technical prowess to produce the complete player, according to former U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger.
Fourteen-times major winner Woods has gone through four swing changes in his career, the most recent under coach Sean Foley, prompting widespread criticism after the American slid from the top to 52nd in the rankings in 2011.
Woods, however, has gradually worked his way back up the rankings and three PGA Tour victories this year have helped the 37-year-old take over from Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy as number one.
"Tiger is an artist who has tried to become an engineer and when there is a convergence of the two, that is something to behold," Azinger told Reuters in an interview ahead of next week's U.S. Masters, the first major of the season.
"It is a beautiful thing to watch, a bit like Roger Federer in tennis. It's harder to play golf as an engineer than as an artist but you have to have a little bit of both.
"I believe Tiger is still the great artist who was overcome by becoming the engineer in each one of his swing changes. Now he's beyond the point where the thoughts of the engineer are interrupting his motion."
Azinger, who led the Americans to victory at the 2008 Ryder Cup, compared Woods with the great Spanish shotmaker Seve Ballesteros who died in 2011 at the age of 54 after a long battle with brain cancer.
The swashbuckling Ballesteros delighted galleries around the world when he won five majors between 1979-88 before his game went into decline.
"I look at Seve as the great artist," said the 53-year-old Azinger. "When did it start to go wrong for him? When he started to work with (coach) Mac O'Grady, when he started to think about technicalities in his swing and in his motion.
"Seve never used to think technically out of a bunker or around the greens. He was the artist but he tried to become an engineer."
Azinger, who will be commentating at the Masters (see www.espn.co.uk for coverage details), believes Woods is certain to win his fifth Green Jacket if he turns up at Augusta National firing on all cylinders.
NERVES AND PRESSURE
"What makes sport so great is when you are lucky to be alive in the era of one of the greatest ever players," said the 1993 U.S. PGA champion. "Wouldn't it have been great to watch Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson or Sam Snead in their prime?
"We couldn't watch them but we're getting to watch Tiger in his prime and I think we take that for granted at times. He does feel nerves and pressure and he will be putting a lot of pressure on himself during the Masters," added Azinger.
"We know if Tiger makes his putts he wins and the Masters is a putter's paradise. I think that's the reason he plays well there all the time.
"The gap between Tiger and the next guy is like the size of the Grand Canyon, even at the age of 37."
McIlroy claimed his second major victory last year, at the U.S. PGA Championship, and won the money lists on both sides of the Atlantic but Azinger says the 23-year-old Northern Irishman has a long way to go before he can be bracketed in Woods' class.
"Rory is not Tiger," said Azinger. "Rory missed around seven cuts in one year a few years ago, Tiger has missed around seven or eight in his entire career.
"I think Rory is more like Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson. Rory being compared to what Tiger has done is kind of unfair," added Azinger, who collected 12 PGA Tour victories between 1987-2000.
"Rory is unbelievably good but unfortunately he's measured against the bar Tiger's established and in my opinion no one will ever achieve that again."
(Editing by Mark Meadows)