Tiger Woods back at the Masters and expecting to win

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AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) -- Tiger Woods hit the ball so pure that he felt like a 14-time major champion. Before long, the swing left him and he resembled a guy who couldn't break 80. He became so frustrated that he even threw a few clubs because of a game that had never been so maddening.

This wasn't Woods playing in the Masters.

This was the last seven weeks when he was trying to decide if he should even show up.

"I worked my (tail) off," Woods said Tuesday with a smile of satisfaction. "That's the easiest way to kind of describe it. I worked hard. ... People would never understand how much work I put into it to come and do this again. But it was sunup to sundown, whenever I had free time. If the kids were asleep, I'd still be doing it. And then when they were in school, I'd still be doing it.

"So it was a lot of work."

And he got his answer.

It took nearly two months, followed by two practice rounds at Augusta National last week, before Woods decided to end his self-imposed break and return at the Masters.

Woods last played the Masters two years ago. He was No. 1 in the world and the overwhelming favorite. Now he is at No. 111 in the world and Las Vegas bookies may have been generous in listing him at 40-1.

Golf's biggest star always lights up Augusta National, and such was the case when he arrived Monday afternoon.

Only now, expectations have been replaced by sheer curiosity. Never mind that he hasn't played in nearly two months and hasn't won the Masters in 10 years. When last seen at a tournament, Woods couldn't hit a simple chip shot, and the rest of his game was barely PGA Tour quality.

Adam Scott listed a half-dozen players that he could see contend for a green jacket, and he was asked why Woods was not on that short list.

"My guess is as good as yours," Scott said. "I really don't know. I have no idea what he's doing. I've listed a bunch of guys that I've watched play a little bit and followed their results. But it's a little bit unknown with Tiger because he hasn't played for a few months.

"When you're talking about a world-class player, you just don't know," he said. "I'm sure he has high hopes."

That he does.

Woods didn't look anything like the player who shot 82 at the Phoenix Open; who bladed a bunker shot over a green and into the bleachers; who walked off the course at Torrey Pines after 11 holes of the first round. During practice Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning, he looked closer to normal. There appeared to be no issues with his swing or his chipping. He looked comfortable when he hugged his two children on the practice green and in a press room with no empty seats.

Woods always said he didn't play in a tournament if he didn't expect to win. That standard hasn't changed. There are no moral victories, even for a guy who hasn't won anything since the Bridgestone Invitational in August 2013.

"No, I still feel the same way. I want to win," Woods said. "The whole idea is to prepare and do that. And I feel like my game is finally ready to go and do that again."

So many others are coming into the Masters in better form.

Rory McIlroy won early in the year at Dubai and began showing progress toward the end of the Florida swing. Jordan Spieth won at Innisbrook, was runner-up at the Texas Open and lost in a playoff at the Houston Open in his last three starts. He is eager at another shot at Augusta National, where last year he played in the final group at age 20.

Bubba Watson is the defending champion and going after his third green jacket in four years. Only Jack Nicklaus won so many Masters at that rate.

"I think everyone is just curious to see how he comes back," McIlroy said. "I don't think you should ever underestimate it him. He's done things on the golf course that are pretty special. But you know, just as a golf fan in general, I'm sort of interested to see how he does when he comes back. I had a good chat with him on the putting green today. He feels good. He's been working hard. He's got the motivation to keep at it.

"And just like everyone else," McIlroy added, "I'll be looking for his score and seeing what he's doing."

Woods said he would have skipped the Masters if he didn't feel ready. He also said he wasn't targeting the Masters, but the Arnold Palmer Invitational three weeks ago.

There was no epiphany on the practice range at home. The goal was to be better at the end of each day. He worked with his new coach, Chris Como, and never lost hope that his game would not return. That's not to say there weren't a few trying moments.

"It would come in flashes," Woods said. "I would get in these modes where it would come for 10 minutes and I would just have it, just dialed in. And then I'd lose it for an hour. And then I'd get it back. And next thing you know, I'd flip to having it for an hour to 10 minutes of losing it. And then it got to a point where it was just there."

But he's not there yet.

He tees off Thursday afternoon. For all the questions about his game, the score will be the measure of his game, just like always.

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