It is spring time in the United States and the azaleas at Augusta National are ready to bloom. So is Tiger Woods.
After two and a half years of torment, the former world number one finally has a spring back in his step. He has ironed out most of the kinks in his golf game and now the mind games have started.
Last week, Woods won the Arnold Palmer Invitational to capture his first PGA Tour title since 2009. He led by just one stroke heading into the final round but finished five in front.
It was like old times for the most dominant player of his generation and the huge galleries that have winced and groaned during his struggles roared with excitement.
For the golfing faithful that have waited patiently for Woods to add to his tally of 14 majors, it was manna from heaven, and it sent an ominous message to his rivals.
More importantly, it helped restore his faith in his own ability. If self-belief and confidence count for anything at the Masters, then Woods’s long wait for a fifth green jacket may soon be over.
“I understand how to play Augusta National,” he said. “It’s just a matter of executing the game plan.”
The American has every reason to feel good about his chances at the April 5-8 Masters. While many great players have wilted under the intense pressure of Augusta, Woods has thrived.
In 1997, Woods confirmed his arrival as the hottest golfer of his generation and captured his first major with a 12-stroke win at Augusta to become the youngest Masters winner at 21 years, three months and 14 days.
Four years later, Woods captured a second green jacket and completed the seemingly impossible achievement of holding all four majors at the same time. He successfully defended his title in 2002 and won a fourth in 2005.
His lifelong dream of overtaking Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors was coming into focus when his world came crashing down in 2009.
In 2010, when he returned to the game following the sordid revelations of his private life that led to the breakdown of his marriage, Woods was a shadow of his former self.
Battling injuries and in the process of rebuilding his swing, he still finished tied for fourth at the Masters. A year later, he tied for fourth again and might have won had he putted better.
But away from Augusta, he struggled on and off the course. His infidelities were still the fodder for the tabloids and he was heavily criticised for firing his long-time caddie.
Woods missed the 2011 U.S. Open and British Open because of a leg injury he suffered at the Masters. He returned for last year’s U.S. PGA Championship but missed the cut and slipped to 58th in the world rankings.
But 2012 has been a different story and most of his problems have gone. The 36-year-old has regained his length off the tee and is striking his irons as clean and accurately as ever. Even his putter is behaving itself.
Earlier this month, he shot 62 in the final round of the Honda Classic, his lowest ever score on the last day of a PGA Tour event.
“I’m excited about the things that we’ve been working on and to see it come together week in and week out,” he said.
“I still have got some work to do, but I’m excited about the things that we have accomplished. It’s been very good.”