Eye of the Tiger

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:38 AM ET

He's 100% healthy now, he's determined to regain his throne and he has an unparalleled command of Augusta National -- how do you bet against a rebuilt and recharged Tiger Woods in the season's first major?

Then again, with two wins in the last four weeks, two Masters titles in the last five years and the ghosts of 18 at Winged Foot locked away in a skeleton closet, maybe the smart money should be on Phil Mickelson.

Maybe, at long last, this is the year golf finally gets its final-round, same-group, Ali-Frazier major championship showdown.

Or maybe recent history repeats and another Cinderella is fitted for a green slipper behind Trevor Immelman last year and Zach Johnson in 2007. Or maybe a young gun such as Anthony Kim rises up, or Padraig Harrington wins his fourth major in seven starts.

Who knows, with 54-year-old bridesmaid Greg Norman back for the first time in seven years, maybe Augusta National has one more sentimental storybook finish left in its blades after Jack's win for the ages in 1986.

One way or another, like always, the 2009 Masters, scheduled for April 9-12, is shaping up to be a beauty.

"Overall, I think the game is in pretty exciting times," said Woods, whose return after nine months on the injured list is still the most stirring development of the season. "We've got new, young blood coming up with Rory (McIlroy, the 19-year-old phenom from Northern Ireland), A.K., Sergio Garcia is playing well, you've got Paddy winning three major championships; obviously with Phil and myself there, I think as a whole, I think the game is in good stead right now."

The major story in any major is always Woods, no matter what he does. Win or lose, he's always news. But this time the golfing world will be watching even more closely as he tees it up in his first major championship since ligament damage in his knee and a stress fracture in his tibia opened the door for everyone else.

And while the big cat was away, the rest of the PGA's mice most certainly did play.

You'll find Woods 84th on the PGA money list heading into this weekend, about 83 spots lower than he normally sits. Take a good look, he won't be $2,000 behind somebody named Cameron Beckman for long.

"It was nice, actually, to take that break," said Woods, who began practising in December. "I didn't want to take that break, trust me. I didn't want to have to go through all the things I went through. But when it's all said and done now, I'm feeling so much better now than I did for years. I don't have to deal with how the leg was."

Off since his winning putt rolled in on the 91st hole of the 2008 U.S. Open, Woods is in the final stage of his rehab -- the Bay Hill Invitational, where he's posting numbers that should send a definite scare into the rest of the Tour.

After this last preseason game (he only judges himself by majors, after all), he goes underground for a week-long training camp before resurfacing at Augusta.

Then it's on.

"I'm getting better each day, the feel of playing in the game again at this level is coming back," he said. "I'm finding the rhythm, my pace of play, my feel, my swing, my touch is coming back now. Hopefully, it will keep progressing as I come closer to Augusta."

If it's possible to have home-field advantage in a major, Woods has it at Augusta National, where his four titles are second only to Jack Nicklaus's six.

He's won there three times in this decade (2001, 2002 and 2005) and has seven top-five finishes (1st, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th) in nine years.

He likes it there.

Doesn't mean it's automatic, though. He was at the top of his game last year, winning at Bay Hill in his last stop before Augusta, and couldn't catch Immelman. He couldn't catch Zach Johnson the year before that, or Mickelson the year before that. In fact, in the last six years, Woods has only won there once, while Mickelson has won twice.

That he's been playing well but still didn't win -- he was second last year, second the year before and tied for third the year before that -- tells you the competition is no longer parting like the New York Islanders defence whenever he's in contention.

A fifth Masters won't come easily, new knee or not.

He was pretty average through the first two events of his comeback -- getting eliminated in the second round of the match-play championship and finishing 10th at the WGC Championship -- where his putting, the lifeblood of any Masters contender, wasn't good at all (74th among the 79 players who made the cut).

But his play at Bay Hill suggests he's ready to rumble.

"To be honest with you, I think it's taken less time to get my feel back for my game," he said. "I thought it would take a little bit longer because I didn't know. That's probably been the greatest positive, that I've been able to recover from day-to-day and not feel a thing.

"I feel like I'm back playing now. I feel like I'm back where I can just go out and play golf, and that's fun. There were so many question marks going into the Match Play and even into Doral -- one ,being Match Play because it is match play and it was my first tournament back, and two, Doral because it was my first stroke-play event, and how could I think my way around the golf course for 72 holes? I hadn't done it. Those are two very positive tournaments. Now I feel like I can just go play golf."

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PAST MASTERS WINNERS

2008 Trevor Immelman Score: 280

2007 Zach Johnson 289

2006 Phil Mickelson 281

2005 Tiger Woods 276

2004 Phil Mickelson 279

2003 Mike Weir 281

2002 Tiger Woods 281

2001 Tiger Woods 281

2000 Vijay Singh 281

1999 Jose Maria Olazabal 280

1998 Mark O'Meara 279

1997 Tiger Woods 270

1996 Nick Faldo 276

1995 Ben Crenshaw 274

1994 Jose Maria Olazabal 279

1993 Bernhard Langer 277

1992 Fred Couples 275

1991 Ian Woosnam 277

1990 Nick Faldo 278

PGA 2009 Money Leaders

1 Geoff Ogilvy $2,730,577.30

2 Phil Mickelson $2,704,289.80

3 Nick Watney $2,097,410.00

4 Kenny Perry $1,778,263.00

5 Dustin Johnson $1,591,191.00

6 Retief Goosen $1,518,720.50

7 Steve Stricker $1,434,922.90

8 Zach Johnson $1,419,850.00

9 John Rollins $1,233,979.00

10 Pat Perez $1,159,146.40

11 Charley Hoffman $1,159,146.40

12 Y.E. Yang $1,142,270.80

13 Mike Weir $1,075,885.00

14 Sean O'Hair $958,342.30

15 Kevin Na $957,540.00

16 Paul Casey $918,500.00

17 David Toms $910,024.75

18 Brett Quigley $901,886.25

19 Davis Love III $855,488.50

20 Camilo Villegas $854,400.00

21 Charles Howell III $830,066.10


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