Woods a contender again after Augusta odds slashed

LONDON • Tiger-mania appears to have returned after 14-time Major winner Tiger Woods was installed as joint-second favourite for next month's Masters just eight months after dropping out of the world's top 1,000.

It is five years since Woods won a tournament but his second place to Paul Casey in the Valspar Championship on Sunday was the clearest signal of his return to form yet.

His odds to win at Augusta immediately tumbled from 100-1 to 10-1 as he climbed to 149 in the rankings, his highest since May 2015.

Where some saw glimpses of his former genius, others just saw dollar signs. On the StubHub resale site, tickets for Sunday's play were going for between US$1,667 (S$2,189) and US$5,486 while one seller listed a ticket on Viagogo at a mind-boggling US$100,220.

Home viewership rose too. American broadcaster NBC said its ratings for the third round at the Valspar were 181 per cent up on last year, when Woods was absent. That made it the most-watched third round of golf in the last 12 years.

On social media, more than 150,000 people liked his tweet declaring: "Man, I've missed this - people, adrenaline, atmosphere."

Clearly nobody in golf makes a headline or draws a crowd quite like the man who most recently won at Augusta when current world No. 2 Justin Thomas was 11.

The reason for the upsurge in belief goes beyond mere nostalgia, however. Woods' club-head speed during his near miss was among the quickest on the PGA Tour this year and a better short game during the final round in Florida might have overhauled Casey.

After a slew of previous comebacks, his rate of progress has been remarkable.

He withdrew from the Safeway Open in 2016, admitting "my game is vulnerable". When he did return that December after 15 months out, he was only 15th out of 17 players at the Hero World Challenge.

Last April he had a spinal fusion and, in October, he pleaded guilty to reckless driving and entered a diversion programme. It did not bode well. Now, after finishing 12th at the Honda Classic and a share of second at the Valspar, he is back in ruder health than anyone could have envisaged.

This week, he will attempt to become the first player to win the same PGA Tour event nine times - at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

And even though he has been promoted from a nostalgic throwback to championship favourite in the space of one weekend, he will feel he has a good chance of winning his 80th PGA Tour event.

Brandt Snedeker, who played alongside Woods in Florida, explained what it is like to be a bit-part player in the mother of all comeback stories.

"You have to realise nobody is out there to watch you play and get into your own little world," he said.

"I can confirm he's back. The roars are back. It's fun to hear the crowd going crazy again."

They all know that, when they get to Augusta, there will be only one show in town.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2018, with the headline 'Woods a contender again after Augusta odds slashed'. Print Edition | Subscribe