COMMENT:

According to the American sportswriter, Rick Reilly, in his new book on Donald Trump, the late Earl Woods had a mantra for his son Tiger's playing career. It was: "We came. We saw. We won. We got the f*** out of town."

But the Masters and the Augusta National were always different. It was the place that best framed Woods Jnr's brilliance. Tiger has won four Green Jackets there but the last was in 2005. "I don't really need to win again," he says, smiling. "I really want to."

The special relationship between Woods and the Masters is back on track.

Advertisement

At 43, golf's most recognisable figure is once more a contender. He is far away, but close; a candidate but also an outsider, physically, after four back surgeries and four knee operations — most recently to fuse his back, in April 2017.

Buoyed by an encouraging practice round of 65 at Augusta last week, Woods is nevertheless unable to hide the challenges faced by his body. "The hardest part is I just can't practice like I used to," he says. "My back gets sore. I can't work on every single part of my game every day. I have to pick different parts of my game to work on, and that's the challenge I now face going forward. I've worked on my putting, and when I have, I've putted well.

"If I worked on my short game, I've chipped it well. You know, I just can't do all the things all the time any more."

That last lament would strike a chord with anyone middle-aged. But Woods, ranked 12 in the world, is not the average ageing grumbler. He is about to make his 22nd appearance in an event where he set 20 tournament records in his spectacular breakthrough win in 1997.

He is in that tantalising state of knowing he can win tournaments but not knowing whether his body will sabotage his efforts across four rounds.

"I just feel like I've improved a lot over the past 12, 14 months, but I've more than anything just proven to myself that I can play at this level again," he says. "I've worked my way back into [being] one of the players that can win events."

Woods has changed the shafts on his driver and 3-wood to offset neck pain: "A little lighter shaft made it a little bit easier for my body to take it and, next thing you knew, I got a little more pop out of it and started driving it a little bit better, which was nice."

These are the calculations he now he has to make.

No longer the great outlier, the aloof warrior of world golf, Woods also sounds more willing to draw on the energy of a crowd who offer refuge from the smartphone mania and "get-in-the-hole" inanity of the regular circuit.

"These are some of the most respectful people that you'll ever play in front of," he says.

"You see the same people. For me, I've been here 22 years, and you see the same people on 16, same people on 18, same people on No1 tee. It's fantastic to see, and they have all their badges from 50 years of being at the Masters.

"This is unlike any other golf tournament, and my relationship with this event and the patrons that have followed not only myself but all the players here throughout the years has been just special.

"The tournament does an incredible job of creating a special atmosphere, but it's also the patrons and how you can tell birdie roars and eagle roars."

Woods rarely speaks this way about the galleries. Emotional detachment has been his modus operandi. Yet Augusta may yet be the place to lift him within three wins of Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles.

He says: "I get a rush out of pulling off shots that sometimes I only dreamt about pulling off, and to see some of the reactions. I remember I had holed that shot on 16 in 2005, and there was a gentleman in the back — I think it was towards 15. I mean, he just slams his hat on the ground.''

Woods calls the Masters "pure golf" — "just the player and caddie". So, Augusta affords solitude, privacy, as well as moderated fervour. This is one town Woods is in no hurry to get out of.

- Telegraph Group Ltd