(In this April 2nd story, adds dropped letter ‘a’ to Ilagan in para 19)
By Frank Pingue
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Tiger Woods has not competed at the U.S. Masters since 2015 but that did not stop the four-times champion from sending a warning shot to his rivals on Tuesday that echoed through the tall pines that line Augusta National.
Woods, who has missed three of the previous four Masters due to back problems, called himself a “walking miracle” and said he is feeling the best he has in “seven, eight years” heading into Thursday’s opening round.
“I feel great. I feel like I’ve really put a lot of pieces together,” Woods, who won the most recent of his 14 major titles in 2008, said during his pre-Masters news conference.
“We have worked on what body parts to get stronger, what body parts need to be more limber, and I feel fantastic. It’s just a matter of now going out there and competing and playing and posting numbers.”
The 42-year-old former world number one has enjoyed an on-course renaissance this year that few expected given the spinal fusion procedure he had last April that left him sidelined for the better part of a year.
Woods, who said it was only after playing an exhibition last December that he felt he would be able to compete in the year’s first major, has since shown flashes of the form that helped him earn a staggering 79 PGA Tour wins.
“It’s been a tough road. I’ve described a little bit of it, the pain of just sitting there and the amount of times that I’ve fallen because my leg didn’t work or I just had to lay on the ground for extended periods of time. Those are some really dark, dark times,” said Woods.
“The reason why I say I’m a walking miracle is that I don’t know if — I don’t know if anyone who has had a lower back fusion that can swing the club as fast as I can swing it. That’s incredible.”
Stamping his authority as a four-times Masters winner, Woods said that while he hopes to play his best golf this week he felt he could slip into a Green Jacket on Sunday evening even if he is not firing on all cylinders.
“This is a tournament I think that where experience does help a lot. I mean, I have played here and I’ve won here not playing my absolute best, but there’s got to be a certain part of my game that’s on,” said Woods.
“I think that this tournament really helps with having the experience and really understanding how to play this particular golf course.”
Woods is one of the favourites to triumph this week in a wide-open field and the debate about where a possible victory for him would rank in the annals of sporting comebacks has already begun.
For his part, Woods said he has plenty of work still to do before entertaining that discussion but did tip his hat to golfing great Ben Hogan, who came back from a head-on collision with a bus in 1949 to win the U.S. Open the following year.
“I think that one of the greatest comebacks in all of sport is the gentleman who won here, Mr. Hogan,” said Woods, who plays the first two rounds alongside Australian Marc Leishman and Englishman Tommy Fleetwood.
“I mean, he got hit by a bus and came back and won major championships.”
Editing by Toby Davis