By Steve Keating
Augusta, Georgia (Reuters) - Tiger Woods has produced a collection of magical feats at the U.S. Masters but the 14-times major champion has set the stage for what could be one of golf's greatest moments as he takes his comeback to Augusta National Golf Club next week.
After long battles with back issues and many false starts, the 42-year-old Woods returns to stately Augusta for the first time since 2015.
Despite playing just a handful of tournaments, he arrives at the year's first major as one of the hot favorites to claim the coveted Green Jacket.
"This is a little bit like a Lazarus resurrection here with respect to where he was," Steve Mona, World Golf Foundation CEO, told Reuters.
"Only last September he was talking about whether he would be able to comeback at all. Now he is the favorite at the Masters it is just astonishing.
"He is certainly in form. I don't think anyone would be terribly surprised if he were in the hunt.
"I would not count him out just based on what we have seen from him the last three events it is not outside the realm of possibility that he would do and what a tremendous story that would be."
A year ago Woods appeared to be closer to a sad end rather than a new beginning to his storied career.
He had not won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open and was missing the Masters for a second consecutive year.
The back that had caused him so much pain was getting no better despite numerous surgeries and treatments, as the former-world number one dropped out of the top 1,000 of the world rankings.
Even the ever-positive Woods suddenly seemed resigned to a dour fate.
Yet after undergoing spinal fusion surgery last April the dark clouds hanging over Woods slowly began to lift.
Shaking off years of competitive rust, Woods returned with an encouraging tie for ninth at the Hero World Challenge followed by a tie for 23rd at the Farmers Insurance Open and a missed cut at the Genesis Open.
Then suddenly Woods grabbed the spotlight as only he can, announcing his return to form with three impressive results -- a 12th at the Honda Classic, a tie for second at the Valspar Championship and a tie for fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
"If you would have asked me at the beginning of the year that I would have had a chance to win two golf tournaments, I would have taken that in a heart beat," said Woods after his final round at the Arnold Palmer, his final tune-up for the Masters.
"If I can play with no pain and I can feel like I can make golf swings I'll figure it out."
Those results have generated an almost unprecedented buzz around this year's Masters as Tiger-mania once again washes over the golf world.
With Woods back in the hunt television ratings have soared along with expectations and like the fans, his fellow golfers have taken notice.
"It's obviously been a big impact," said last year's champion Sergio Garcia. "We all know what kind of player he is and what kind of player he can be when he's healthy," added the Spaniard.
Adding to Woods' upbeat mood is a return to one of his favorite venues, Augusta National, a course that officials once attempted to "Tiger-proof" by tweaking the layout.
While he won the last of his four Green Jackets 13 years ago, the track has always suited him. He has posted seven top-five finishes along with his victories.
"I'm sure he's excited to come back to Augusta and it's a place where he's done well," said Garcia. "I would expect him to do fairly well, but I don't know how well, you know, because it's also been a while since he's been there and he will probably be a little bit nervous, too, which is normal.
"He's just got to deal with all those feelings again."
(Editing by Toby Davis)