AUGUSTA (Georgia) • Eleven years separate Tiger Woods and a Major golf triumph. Fourteen have elapsed since he last prevailed at the Masters.
Rory McIlroy is in fearsome form as he arrives at Augusta National chasing a career Grand Slam, but a rejuvenated Woods could have a say in the Northern Irishman's bid for a breakthrough Masters win.
When the 43-year-old tees off in the first round today, he knows he's a different player from a year ago when his back was still balky, or certainly from the two years before that when he wasn't even well enough to put his tee in the turf at Augusta National.
He knows he still has all the shots to win here and, just as importantly, the renewed belief that he can.
"I feel like I can win. I've proven that I can do it. I put myself there with a chance to win the last two Major championships last year," said former world No. 1 Woods, who contended at the Open (tied sixth) and the PGA Championship (second with a final-round 64).
"I was right there and just needed to have a couple more things to go my way and not throw away a couple shots here and there, which I was able to do at East Lake (when he ended a five-year drought by winning the Tour Championship last September)."
"I just feel like that I've improved a lot over the past 12, 14 months, but I've more than anything just proven to myself that I can play at this level again. I've worked my way back into one of the players who can win events," added the 14-time Major champion, who will tee off alongside Spain's Jon Rahm and China's Li Haotong in the first two rounds, with McIlroy one group behind them.
TIGER ON THE HUNT
We all know he's back. There's no doubt about that. Can he get it done? I wouldn't be surprised this week if he's knocking on the door.
BROOKS KOEPKA, American golfer who out-duelled Tiger Woods to win the PGA Championship last year.
McIlroy has travelled on an oblique path back to Augusta National, eyeing a picture even bigger than the possibility of becoming the sixth man to complete golf's career Grand Slam.
"I'm not about to go and live with the monks in Nepal, or anything like that, but I'm making sure that I put my head in the right place," the 29-year-old said of the meditation and mindfulness techniques that have fuelled his stellar start to 2019.
His seven top-10 finishes in seven starts include a victory in the Players Championship last month, raising expectations that the world No. 3 will break through for a first Masters win - ending a near five-year Major drought and joining Jack Nicklaus, Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen as the only players with a career Slam - at least one win in each of the four Majors.
McIlroy, who has come up short in four attempts to join the exclusive club, said he has found better balance in his game and his life with his pursuit of the "three Ps" - perspective, patience and poise.
"You need to search until you find what resonates with you," he said. "I want to reach the stage where all the "Ps" I practise are natural and subconscious."
1ST ROUND TEE TIMES
USA unless stated
9.58pm (Singapore time) Sergio Garcia (Esp), Tony Finau, Henrik Stenson (Swe)
10.09pm Adam Scott (Aus), Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn)
10.31pm Patrick Reed
10.53pm Tommy Fleetwood (Eng), Xander Schauffele
11.04pm Tiger Woods, Jon Rahm (Esp), Li Haotong (Chn)
11.15pm Rory McIlroy (Nir), Rickie Fowler
1.16am Francesco Molinari (Ita)
1.38am Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Jason Day (Aus)
1.49am Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose (Eng), Justin Thomas
2am Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka
Each of the last four Masters winners - and seven of the last eight - have been first-time winners but, with experience at a premium, multiple winners like Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and, especially Woods, cannot be ruled out.
"If you had told me two years ago he could win the Masters in 2019, I'd have laughed at you. If he wins the Masters this year, I wouldn't be surprised," said renowned coach Denis Pugh of Woods.
"He has surprised everyone because he has maintained great form after career-threatening injuries. He has proven a lot of people who are supposed to be knowledgeable wrong. He is going to play until he knows he can't win."
Next stop, Augusta; where fairy tales are part of the fabric.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN
Day 1: Singtel TV Ch114 & StarHub Ch208, tomorrow, 3am