AUGUSTA (AFP) - In the first hint that 14-time major champion Tiger Woods will play in next week's Masters despite recent problems, his plane was seen on Tuesday morning at Augusta Regional Airport.
The Augusta Chronicle reported Tuesday that a plane whose numbers match those of a Gulfstream G5 owned by Woods was parked near the terminal for private aircraft, only a few miles from Augusta National Golf Club.
Woods has not played in a US PGA Tour event since withdrawing at Torrey Pines on Feb 5 after 11 holes with back pain, saying the following week that he was taking an indefinite break until he could improve his game to a competitive level.
"My play, and scores, are not acceptable for tournament golf," Woods said in February. "Like I've said, I enter a tournament to compete at the highest level, and when I think I'm ready, I'll be back."
Woods said his latest issues were unrelated to the back surgery he had last year that caused him to miss the Masters for the first time in 20 years.
Many players have practice rounds at Augusta National in the days before the official tournament week sessions begin.
Former world number one Woods skipped traditional Masters tune-ups at Doral and Bay Hill, but told tournament host Arnold Palmer that he hoped to be ready for the Masters.
"Missing AP, but making strides and working hard towards hopeful Masters return," Woods tweeted.
If Woods does play next week at Augusta National, it will mark his longest layoff before a major since the 2010 Masters, when he finished equal fourth after five months off in the wake of his infamous sex scandal.
Woods, chasing the all-time record of 18 major titles won by Jack Nicklaus, has fallen to 104th in the world rankings, falling outside the top 100 for the first time since before his first PGA triumph at the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational.
Woods has not won a major since the 2008 US Open with his last Masters triumph coming 10 years ago - eight years after his electrifying, record-setting first major crown in 1997.
Next week, Woods would be playing his first major since turning 39 last December. No player has won more than three major titles beyond his 39th birthday.
Since the start of last year, Woods has played in only 10 events and completed 72 holes only three times, one of those last December at his Hero World Challenge charity event where there was no cut.
Woods has played only 47 holes this year, missing the cut at Phoenix in January with a career-worst 82 in the second round, his once-mighty short game having become a glaring weakness.
With Augusta National's trademark undulating greens a formidable hurdle for those with poor approaches, Woods would need to have solved that trouble to have a strong chance at being competitive for a fifth career Masters title.
But Woods knows Augusta National well, having finished no worse than fourth in seven of his past nine Masters starts.