When Tiger Woods won the Masters Tournament for the fourth time in 2005 at age 29, no one thought his next green jacket might come at age 42.
But oddsmakers and pros, such as 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott, believe it could happen this week at the Masters, which starts Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club.
After missing three of the past four Masters with back problems, Woods is healthy again and appears on the road to regaining his once-dominant form.
Woods, who is among a handful of players 40 and older who could contend, spent two days practicing at Augusta National last week but was not at the course Sunday.
Everything has fallen into place, and Woods is now ready for the tournament he’s been pointing to since his latest comeback started in the unofficial Hero World Challenge in early December.
In his return to the PGA Tour this year after playing just two rounds in 2017, Woods has played five times for a total of 18 rounds. In order, he’s tied for 23rd, missed the cut, tied for second in two tournaments in a row and tied for fifth. In each of his past three events – all in Florida – he was within a shot of the lead on the back nine in the final round.
Though Woods hasn’t won since his return, his recent consistency is Tiger-esque. He has shot par-or-better in his past 10 rounds on the PGA Tour and has gone from 656th in the world ranking at the end of 2017 to 104th last week.
Scott said Woods’ recent form makes him “dangerous.”
“To see him play the way he’s playing really excites me,” said Ernie Els, one of Woods’ rivals as Woods won 79 PGA Tour events from 1996 to 2013.
Els said he is excited not only for Woods “but for his legacy and what’s he’s done for the game. To see him play this way, this is basically almost the way he played in his prime. To keep seeing that happen really gives me some chills. When he gets going again, you watch out. He’s a player that’s unlike any player I’ve played against or with.”
The fact that Woods has had four back surgeries since he last won on the PGA Tour in 2013 would make a victory this week all the more amazing. When he attended the Champions Dinner a year ago, he was in pain from his back and leg and couldn’t play in the tournament for the second consecutive year.
“I was debilitated,” Woods said on his website Friday.
Two weeks after the Champions Dinner, he underwent an anterior lumbar interbody fusion that has finally eased his pain and allowed him to play golf again.
“I got a second chance on life,” Woods said on his website. “I am a walking miracle.”
A victory by Woods this week “would be incredible,” said Els, who believes it would be comparable to Jack Nicklaus winning the 1986 Masters at age 46. “It would be something incredible. Really, truly incredible.”
“That would be explosive,” two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw said Sunday when asked about a Woods victory. “He’s always tended to do some explosive things. The way he won here way long ago (1997) was just earthshaking, really.”
Woods was ranked No. 1 for 683 for weeks, and he won 14 majors.
“I must say, I never thought Tiger would look this good again,” Crenshaw said. “But I must be honest: he looks fantastic. He looks entirely capable.”
Scott and other top pros also wouldn’t be surprised if Woods wins this week.
“If anyone knows how to handle all this, it’s him,” Scott said. “Maybe it’s just back to old times for him with all those feelings. He never suffered from the expectations – ever. It seems like everything is in a much better place for him coming back from the injury this time than any other attempt he’s had. So maybe he’s switched it all back on to how he felt it was before. He’s playing great and it’s fantastic.”
Justin Rose, the 2017 Masters runner-up, played with Woods in the first rounds of the Arnold Palmer Invitational in mid-March. Woods shot 68-72.
“I think he’s playing very solidly, every shot comes off the club pretty square,” Rose said. “And when he has missed greens he’s chipping really, really well. So that’s the part of his game that looks the sharpest to me. But with Tiger you always just watch his focus, really, I think, that’s for me what he’s been able to block out through his career I think is the most impressive – and how he always makes the putt on 18. Those are like the little things, the intangibles. The rest of it is golf and golf swings, and we can all do that part. So, yeah, just watching the mental side is always fun.”
Because of his injuries, Woods missed most of the past two seasons after back surgeries.
“He’s got to play some to get tournament ready,” Davis Love III said. “I would be more excited about later in the year than the Masters, except it’s the Masters. His game always elevates when he gets there.”
Justin Thomas, 24, last season’s PGA Player of the Year with five wins, has only played in the Masters the past two years, both of which Woods missed. But Thomas knows Woods’ history at Augusta, where he shares the tournament scoring record of 18-under 270 with Jordan Spieth.
“If he’s playing, you know he’s going to be up there as a favorite, especially in Augusta,” Thomas said. “And with the form that he’s shown lately, I didn’t expect anything less, to be honest. He’s played well.”
Golfers in their 40s have won three times in the past five weeks on the PGA Tour. Phil Mickelson, 47, won the WGC-Mexico Championship in early March, and 40-year-old Paul Casey won the next week at the Valspar Championship. The next week, 41-year-old Henrik Stenson was the 54-hole leader at the Arnold Palmer Invitational before finishing fourth.
On Sunday, 42-year-old Ian Poulter won the Houston Open to get into the Masters.
“If Sam Snead could have won in his 50s in the 1950s, guys in 2018 in the 40s can definitely win,” said Els, who is 48. ”Age, you can throw that out the window.”
“I loved Phil’s victory,” said Casey, whose victory at the Valspar was his first since on the PGA Tour since 2009. “As Phil said, it’s all about health. It’s not about strength. It’s about eliminating injuries and can the body move.”
Scott separates Woods and Mickelson, who have combined for seven Masters title, from the other 40-and-overs this week.
“As much as they might be favorites in their 40s, we’re talking about greats of the generation,” he said. “It’s not just anyone. I think it’s getting tougher for guys in their 40s generally because they’ve got to beat a whole class of Justin Thomases.”