AUGUSTA, Ga. — In a way, very little has changed since 1998, when a 22-year-old Tiger Woods arrived at Augusta National Golf Club, a green jacket already in his closet, as the prohibitive favorite to win the Masters.
Fifteen times the tournament has been held in early April after Woods's record 12-stroke breakthrough victory in 1997, and he's been the popular pick most — if not every — year. He's delivered three additional wins since his initial Masters triumph.
But we know that much has changed since 1998. The course has been tweaked, equipment has vastly improved, rivals have come and gone. A few other things were discovered in Woods's proverbial closet, he's changed his swing, and he's had a difficult time staying healthy, even though he's never missed a Masters start in 18 years.
He's the choice — at least by those who establish the odds — to win the Masters again, which would end an eight-year drought between wins here, the longest of his career. His victories have come in 1997, 2001, 2002, and 2005.
The major championship he seemed most likely to win — Jack Nicklaus once famously predicted that Woods could finish with more than 10 — has now become the major he's gone the longest without winning. Among his 14 majors, wins in the US Open (2008), British Open (2005) and PGA (2007), all have come more recently than his last Masters.
"[I've] 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," Woods said Tuesday. "I've been there, and unfortunately just haven't got it done."
He's right about giving himself chances. In fact, a case can be made that, starting with 2006 (the year after his most recent Masters win), Woods has been the most consistent player at Augusta National, even with no victories. His finishes, beginning with '06: third, second, second, sixth, fourth, fourth, 40th.
Phil Mickelson, by comparison, has two wins during that stretch (in 2006 and 2010), but also pedestrian finishes of 24th and 27th. Nobody would win an argument that Woods has the better record at the Masters over Mickelson since '06 — he'd pay handsomely for two more majors — but he has consistently been in position to win, and simply has come up short.
Until Woods wins at Augusta National again — if he wins again — he'll take pride in knowing that he's reclaimed the No. 1 ranking, and is the only player with multiple wins on the PGA Tour this season, two strong signs that he's closer to resembling the Old Tiger. He's served notice by winning at three familiar haunts: Torrey Pines (by four shots), Doral (by two), and Bay Hill (by two).
Now he returns to another.
"I think that even at times where he has not played his best, you know what he's capable of, and so you're always looking at his score. You're always worried about him making that big run the way he's always done throughout his career," Mickelson said. "And now that he's doing it and winning tournaments in such a dominating fashion, it does have the feel of what we expect to see from Tiger."
As for those who say that Woods won't truly be back until he wins a major?
"Is he going to be back to the game he had in 2000 or 2001? Probably not," said Curtis Strange, a two-time US Open champion who will be part of ESPN's coverage team for the first two rounds. "Is he back to being a consistent contender, an intimidating figure? Yeah, I think he's very, very close to being back in that respect.
"Is he back to winning majors? Well, we have yet to see."
One key reason Woods has worked his way back from No. 58 in the world is his putter. He was 109th in the tour's strokes gained-putting statistic in 2010, when he failed to win. That number improved to 45th the next year, but still no wins. In 2012, when he won three tournaments, he was up to 36th in strokes gained-putting.
This year, Woods is first. How well he putts on Augusta's greens could be a telling indication how he fares.
"You have to make your putts," Woods said. "You have to make the majority of the putts inside 10 feet, and you've got to be just a great lag putter for the week."
He's putting better, but he also indicated that he's in a better place personally. He and skier Lindsey Vonn acknowledged their relationship recently, and Woods is now more than two years removed from divorce.
"Life is better. Life is better since I've had kids," Woods said. "I think life is all about having a balance, and trying to find equilibrium and not getting things one way or the other. I feel very balanced."
Over the past eight years, Woods has battled physical and personal obstacles, and struggled with areas of his game, all reasons why he's come up short. Some years at the Masters, he's simply been outplayed.
And while the favorite seldom wins in golf — even in a field of 93 golfers, the player to beat before the tournament starts has quite a challenge being the one left standing at the end — Woods appears to have everything exactly as he'd like.
"I feel very 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," Woods said. "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."