AUGUSTA, Georgia, April 2 (Reuters) - There were smiles everywhere and no shortage of well-wishes and encouragement around Augusta National on Monday - almost all of it directed at a fit-again Tiger Woods.
There might not be quite so many happy faces around the place come Sunday if, as some are predicting, the 14-times major winner can cap a fairytale comeback by adding a fifth Green Jacket to his collection.
Back playing at the U.S. Masters for the first time in three years, Monday had a bit of a homecoming feel to it as a relaxed Woods hit the driving range and the putting green to the delight of a massive gallery.
Dogged by injury and scandal, it has been 13 years since Woods last triumphed at Augusta and it appeared as if many of those teeing it up at the year’s first major had forgotten what a ruthless competitor he was back then.
In 1997, he rampaged to a 12-shot victory to claim his first Masters title and then took virtual ownership of the Green Jacket with three wins from 2001 to 2005.
“It’s fun to see him back healthy enjoying playing the game of golf,” said American Rickie Fowler.
“Obviously he knows how to win, he’s not scared when he’s in the situation of in contention on the weekends.
“It’s great for the game to have him back. I think you can see the Tiger effect in plenty of the tournaments that he’s been at, from ticket sales to the amount of people viewing on TV.
“We’ll see it this week. I would love to see him play well, just hopefully I can play a little bit better.”
Despite being without a PGA Tour title since 2013 and with his last major victory now a decade gone, Woods presence at Augusta National is still one that should make his fellow competitors nervous.
Woods has posted 11 top five finishes, including four wins, on a course that was once tweaked to “Tiger Proof” the layout. Staring down Woods on a final day was a golfing nightmare and, while his invincible aura may have faded, the thought of a Tiger back-nine charge on Sunday is as much an unpleasant one for his rivals as it is a potential thrill for fans.
“I think when it comes to Tiger ... everyone wants to see him win and play the way he did before,” said Australia’s former world number one Jason Day.
“Everyone’s kind of chomping at the bit for him to kind of get here and see how he’s moving and everything. Tiger’s Tiger, but I think the biggest thing for me is I can’t beat myself.
“I think on my good day I’ve got a good chance of beating him. I honestly believe that. You got to have that self belief.
“You can’t come into an event thinking that, well, Tiger’s going to win, I’m going to play for second place.” (Editing by Nick Mulvenney)