Tiger excites with Masters practice

Tiger Woods thrilled Masters has fans with a strong practice round at Augusta National, solid chips and approach shots signaling a return to form by the 14-time major champion.

Woods, who missed last year’s Masters due to back surgery, excited spectators with a late-afternoon practice round on Monday alongside long-time pal Mark O’Meara.

“Don’t ever underestimate Tiger,” O’Meara said. “I saw some good signs out there.”

Woods, who has sunk to 111th in the world rankings, made his first public shotmaking display since withdrawing from Torrey Pines after only 11 holes in February with back issues and a woeful short game.

On Monday, Woods arrived by plane from Florida in the afternoon and went directly to Augusta National’s practice chipping area, where he hit about 70 shots with no sign of the horrid form from prior events, and driving range, where he spent slightly under an hour.

During the workout, comfortable-looking Woods appeared to be listening to music, dancing at times, and was smiling and relaxed, sharing hugs with O’Meara, former swing coach Sean Foley and past British Open winner Darren Clarke.

After sending his first tee shot well left into pine trees near the adjacent ninth fairway, Woods blasted over the trees to five feet from the cup for a birdie and practiced his chipping on the hole as well.

Woods put his approach at the par-5 second 30 feet from the cup but missed an eagle putt. At the third he chipped within inches of the cup. At the par-3 fourth his stopped his tee shot 10 feet from the cup.

At the seventh Woods put his approach three feet from the cup. At nine, he chipped to 20 feet and sank the long par putt.

Woods’ casual manner and successful shotmaking harkened back to the form that made Woods a four-time Masters winner, his most recent green jacket victory coming 10 years ago.

The manner was a sharp contrast to recent struggles in a year where he has managed only three 72-hole finishes in the past 13 months.

World number one Rory McIlroy, who would complete a career Grand Slam and win his third major in a row by capturing his first green jacket on Sunday, practiced Monday alongside two amateur debutants, reigning British Amateur champion Bradley Neil of Scotland and American Byron Meth, the US Public Links champion.

“It was a blast,” Meth said. “The whole experience was awesome.”

As excited as people are about McIlroy’s run at history, curiosity over Woods stole the show on Monday.

“There’s always a buzz when he’s in the field,” Sweden’s second-ranked Henrik Stenson said. “It’s good to see him back in action and see where his game is at.”

“We want him back. We need him back,” said American Brandt Snedeker. “He brings a lot of drama. I would love to see him in it on Sunday.”

Australia’s fifth-ranked Jason Day hopes to stay under the radar with the most attention on McIlroy, US star Jordan Spieth and especially Woods.

“Everyone’s excited and interested to see how he performs this week, what the state of the game is for him, because he’s such a huge part of golf,” Day said.

“It definitely makes it a lot easier. I guess people are still watching me, but they are interested to see if Rory can make it happen. They are seeing how Jordan goes and seeing what Tiger has got.”

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