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New and improved Tiger back on the prowl at Augusta

  

REUTERS

Tiger Woods of the U.S. walks along the 12th green during the 2013 Tavistock Cup golf tournament at Isleworth Golf and Country Club in Windermere, Florida March 26, 2013.

REUTERS

TORONTO: Those expecting to see the old Tiger Woods back on the prowl chasing a fifth Masters title among the azaleas and majestic Georgia pines at Augusta National next week are surely to be left disappointed.

That is because this is the new Tiger Woods, complete with a new swing, new love interest and new attitude.

"I don't want to become as good as I once was. No, I don't. I want to become better," declared Woods.

At a point in most careers where most athletes' best years are behind them, Woods has set about redefining the parameters of his sport, insisting that his best is yet to come.

With the number one world ranking back beside his name and three PGA Tour wins from five starts this season, Woods's play is certainly providing very compelling evidence that this may indeed be true.

But while all signs point to Woods being back at his best after years of struggling with injuries, personal strife and a tedious swing overhaul his comeback will not be complete in many minds, including his own, until he wins another major.

It has been nearly five years since Woods celebrated his last major success at the 2008 U.S. Open and eight since he slipped into his fourth green jacket as Masters champion.

Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors that has been Woods's 'Holy Grail' has stalled at 14.

But with the year's first major set for April 11-14 at Augusta National, Woods appears to have his game back in top gear and ready to resume his quest.

"Jack did it (win) until he was 46," said Woods. "I just feel like over the years he was the most consistent at putting himself in position to win major championships and win tournaments.

"You start realizing that it gets a little more difficult as you get older to balance.

"That's just life.

"He was better at that than anybody else and hopefully over the course of my career, when all is said and done, I was pretty good at it as well."

STARS REALIGNING

While Woods's work on the golf course has been of the highest standard, his personal life has been more of a triple-bogey.

He saw his marriage unravel in a messy public divorce as the sleazy details of a string of extra-marital affairs were exposed, sending sponsors running for cover.

It was a shocking fall from grace with injuries and a two-and-a-half-year barren stretch without a PGA Tour win adding to his pain.

But after nearly four years of personal and professional turmoil the stars seem to be realigning for Woods as he rebuilds his life and image.

Yes, life is good again for Woods, who enjoyed a whirlwind week at last month's Arnold Palmer Invitational that began with him announcing a new love interest in Olympic skiing champion Lindsey Vonn and ended in victory with on top the world rankings for the first time since October 2010.

Even sponsors have begun to trickle back.

Woods's portfolio of endorsements may not yet be back to the blue-chip lineup it once was when Gatorade, Gillette, Tag Heuer and Accenture were on board but there are signs marketers no longer view the world number one as the liability he had become.

Luxury watch maker Rolex is back on the Woods bandwagon and Nike, which will introduce a new limited edition Tiger Woods shoe at the Masters, has once again pushed Woods into the spotlight with a controversial ad campaign.

"He's paid a heavy price from the standpoint when you live under that kind of intense expectations," said Mark O'Meara one of Woods's oldest friends. "He loves challenges.

"He's an amazing, gifted athlete and sooner or later, you know, he'd figure it out.

"Do I think Tiger will win every major this year or win the Masters? I'd be hard-pressed to bet against him."

So would a lot of people.


BRILLIANT FORM

Always a favorite at Augusta, Woods has been in brilliant form winning his last two events.

In both those victories Woods putting has been sensational while the swing changes he has made are finally paying dividends.

But the biggest change says Woods, is that he is finally healthy again.

"I'm getting there. I'm getting there," said Woods. "If you looked over my career when I've taken breaks and come back, I've come back better. That's just how I've always been.

"There's a certain method to how I do it, practicing and playing and playing more."

Woods may not be the intimidating force of nature he once was or capable of striking fear into playing partners with a simple glare but his form has caught the attention of fellow golfers, including Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy who he replaced as world number one.

"I've always said he's been one of the greatest fighters on a golf course," said McIlroy. "If things aren't going his way he'll dig in and get whatever he can out of a round.

"It seems like most weeks he comes out, he's hitting the ball very solidly and anyone that's going to beat him is going to have to play very, very well."

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