By Doug Ferguson, Associated Press
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Around every corner at Augusta National is another reminder that Tiger Woods isn't getting any younger.
He played a practice round with a teenager from China who wasn't even born when Woods won his first Masters. He was introduced at his news conference Tuesday as playing the Masters for the 19th time, which caused Woods to bow his head and cover his eyes.
Among dozens of photographs on the walls of the club is one of defending champion Phil Mickelson helping Woods -- with a much fuller head of hair -- into the green jacket after Woods won the Masters in a playoff.
That was from 2005. And that was the last time Woods won the Masters.
Woods says at least he's contending, so he's not about to panic.
He conceded that it feels a lot longer than eight years ago, though he is not the least bit discouraged that the Masters is the major he has gone the longest without winning.
Since that Sunday evening, Woods has won the British Open twice, the PGA Championship twice and another U.S. Open.
Could he have imagined in 2005 that seven Masters would come and go without him winning?
"I wouldn't have been happy with that," Woods said. "I put myself in the mix every year but last year, and that's the misleading part. It's not like I've been out there with no chance of winning this championship. I've been there, and unfortunately just haven't got it done.
"Obviously, I'm not real happy with the fact that I haven't won more," he said. "But the whole idea is to give myself opportunities. And as of right now, I'm tied for second on the all-time win list here. So that's not too bad, either."
Woods has changed his practice routine at this major. For years known as a dew sweeper for playing his practice rounds at the crack of dawn, Woods hasn't shown up at the course until after lunch this week.
He played Monday afternoon with 14-year-old Guan Tianlang and Dustin Johnson. After his news conference, he headed to the practice range before going out for nine holes with Fred Couples.
Asked about the change, he was coy, telling a reporter with whom he's familiar, "Just wanted to mess with you." He smiled, never giving an explanation, so that much hasn't changed about Woods.
The biggest difference is his health and his game, which are connected.
There has been so much activity off the golf course -- the scandalous revelations of extramarital affairs that ended his marriage, changing swing coaches to rebuild his swing for the fourth time, a move to South Florida to a mansion so large he has his own practice range in the backyard -- that it was easy to overlook the injuries.
It all started to turn the corner last year when Woods began winning again -- three times on the PGA Tour -- and getting back into contention at the majors.
It was early last summer when he could finish a round and spend an hour on the range, and when his fitness plan was more about building strength then rehabilitating his left leg.
"The No. 1 concern was first of all, get health, get strong enough where I can practice," he said. "And once I started to be able to practice, things turned. And they turned quickly. I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game. I feel that I've improved, and I've gotten more consistent, and I think the wins show that. That's something that I'm proud of so far this year. And hopefully, I can continue it this week and the rest of the year."
The wins are piling up, and they are impressive.
He led by as many as eight shots on the back nine at Torrey Pines. He was never seriously challenged over the final hour at Doral and Bay Hill, two more wins that marked the first time in 10 years he had three wins before going to the Masters. And he's back to No. 1 in the world.
To no one's surprise, he is the overwhelming favorite when the Masters gets under way on Thursday.
Mickelson came within a fraction of an inch from shooting 59 this year when he won the Phoenix Open, and while he's a bit nervous about not playing the week before the Masters as he usually does, he can contend at Augusta even when he's not on form. A win this year would give him as many green jackets as Woods.
Rory McIlroy is getting his game together at the right time, finishing second last week in the Texas Open. There are challengers all around, and yet most players would agree that Woods is the man to beat this week.
"Even at times where has not played his best, you know what he's capable of, and so you're always looking at his score," Mickelson said.
"You're always worried about him making that big run the way he's always done throughout his career. And now that he's doing it and winning tournaments in such dominating fashion, it does have the feel of what we expect to see from Tiger."
The previous time Woods won back-to-back tournaments going into the Masters was in 2001 (Bay Hill, The Players Championship), and he made it three in a row that year by beating Mickelson and David Duval on the back nine to give him a sweep of the four professional majors.
So that's a good omen for Woods. Then again, he was at No. 1 in the world by miles in 2000 -- he won or finished second in 10 out of 11 tournaments -- and when he got to the Masters, Woods made a double bogey and a triple bogey in a span of three holes, opened with a 75 and never recovered.
"I think he's always a threat at any golf tournament," Adam Scott said. "But he's far from just running away with it at the moment. He's just returned to No. 1, and that's just a number at the end of the day. There are so many players playing well, I think it's just not a foregone conclusion."
Scott also wonders about the growing number of young players, who never knew the Woods that Mickelson, Ernie Els and others had to face. They don't have the scars from running into a guy who already had 12 majors after just eight full years on the PGA Tour.
"They don't know of him really doing that, or they haven't seen him at that level where he has played before," Scott said. "I think that's the difference. I think he'd have to put the runs on the board again to get back to that."
The Masters would be a good place for Woods to start. More than just the Masters, he hasn't won any major since the U.S. Open in 2008. He is stuck on 14 majors and has been for five years, putting him further behind the pace he once set to break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 professional majors.
Nicklaus has long believed that Woods will break his record. But even the Golden Bear says Tiger better get moving.
"The older he gets and if he doesn't win, it makes my record move out further," Nicklaus said. "But I've said it -- and I continue to say it -- that I still expect him to break my record. I think he's just too talented, too driven and too focused on that.
"He's played very, very well this spring," Nicklaus added. "I think if he figures it out here, it will be a great boost for him. If he doesn't figure it out here, after the spring he's had, I think it will be lot tougher for him."