Tiger Woods believes experience can be his trump card when he bids to claim a fifth Masters victory next month – and he reckons fellow “veterans” Fred Couples and Bernhard Langer can also be contenders at Augusta National for the same reason.
Woods resumes his preparation for the season’s opening major by joining Rory McIlroy in making a first appearance in this week’s PGA Tour event, the Valspar Championship on the Copperhead course at Innisbrook in Florida.
The 14-time major winner handed himself a massive confidence boost by finishing 12th in the Honda Classic – just his third official event since returning late last year following fusion surgery on his back – and is now aiming to gain some more momentum for the Masters.
“The favourites are guys who have always done well there,” replied Woods to being asked if someone like Jordan Spieth, the 2015 winner and runner-up either side of that victory, was likely to be the player to beat at Augusta National.
“Jordan has always done well there, but I’m not going to put it out of the realm that if, Freddie [Couples, the 1992 winner) feels good, he is still in the mix. Bernhard [Langer] is still in the mix. Phil [Mickelson], myself, Bubba [Watson]. There are a few others who do well almost every year.
“We just know how to play the golf course. It gets us. There’s definitely going to be some of the young guys up there with a chance or playing really well, but Augusta is one of those courses that also favours the vets. It’s a hard golf course; it’s a hard test over four days.”
Having made only one Masters appearance since finishing fourth in 2013, Woods intends paying a visit to Augusta National before the event itself. “I know there have been no changes as far as the design goes, but I think they have resurfaced some of the greens and I will see if the breaks match my book,” he added. “I also need to get used to putting on bent [grass] as that’s going to be a little bit different.”
Woods, who has been paired with Spieth and 2016 Open champion Henrik Stenson for the opening two rounds in the event in Palm Harbor, has also committed to play in next week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando.
“After playing Honda and really feeling good about it, I wanted to push msyelf in my practice sessions, which I did,” he said. “I also pushed myself in the gym a little bit and felt, hey, I can handle two weeks in a row.
“I think I’ve come along pretty quickly. I’ve only played 10 rounds. I know people saying that I’ve been a little erratic or inconsistent. But it’s 10 rounds. It’s not that many. I looked up some of my stats last night and I’m not even on the rankings. I’ve not played enough rounds.
“My aim is to keep progressing and keep making small tweaks. I was able to do that in the last tournament ands hopefully I can make a few small ones here this week, when I have been working on getting the ball back up in air after a lot of knockdowns at Honda. I’ve had to re-set swing to hit it high.
“I feel good. Today was a solid day. It was blustery and it’s also going to blow tomorrow. This course is very tricky off the tee. I’ve got to hit draws and cuts, highs and lows. It’s a test.”
Woods said he thought it had been “great” to see Mickelson return to winning ways at the age of 47 as his compatriot beat Justin Thomas in a play-off to claim the WGC-Mexico Championship on Sunday.
“He’s been playing well,” said the former world No 1. “And what he did on Sunday was cool to watch. He was solid. He was consistent. He also put pressure on Justin in the play-off by hitting his tee shot pin high.”
Mickelson now looks certain to be on the US Ryder Cup team for the match in France later in the year, when Woods is currently earmarked for a vice-captain’s role. On Tuesday, he played his practice round with team captain Jim Furyk and two of his other right-hand men, Davis Love III and Steve Stricker.
“It was fun,” he said of that group playing together. It was regular Tour against senior Tour - and they got us.”
Back on the Masters, India’s Shubhankar Sharma believes he could become the first player to win that event on their debut since 1979 after accepting an invitation to make his major championship debut at Augusta National.
Sharma currently tops the European Tour’s Race to Dubai after victories in the Joburg Open and Maybank Championship and finished ninth in the WGC-Mexico Championship on Sunday after leading by two shots heading into the final round.
Such strong performances means that the 21-year-old has not ruled out the possibility of emulating Fuzzy Zoeller in claiming a Green Jacket at his first attempt.
“I think in golf anything is possible,” Sharma told a pre-tournament press conference ahead of the Hero Indian Open at Delhi’s DLF Golf and Country Club.
“You have play well for four days, you can definitely compete with the best. I know that if I play my best, I’m good for a top five, or even a win at the Masters Tournament. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Sharma is rated the favourite to win his third event of the season in Delhi, where compatriot SSP Chawrasia is attempting to claim a third Indian Open title in succession.
Scott Jamieson, who finished seventh in last week’s Tshwane Open, is joined by David Drysdale, Marc Warren and Stephen Gallacher in flying the Saltire at DLG Golf & Country Club, where players are facing one of the toughest tests of the year on a Gary Player-designed course.
Elsewhere, four Scots - Kylie Henry, Carly Booth, Kelsey MacDonald and Jane Turner - are in the field for the Investec SA Women’s Open at Westlake Golf Club in Capetown
And, in the opening event of the season on the European Senior Tour, Gary Orr, Gordon Brand jnr, Andrew Oldcorn and Ross Drummond are all in action in the Sharjah Senior Masters at Sharjah Golf & Shooting Club in the UAE.