James Lawton: Can Tiger Woods master a comeback on a par with Muhammad Ali?

World No 1 primed to complete sport's most remarkable return since Ali's 'Rumble in the Jungle'

Augusta National

There are quite a number of rituals going on here in the extraordinary re-creation of Tiger Woods. All of them are pitched towards a second coronation on the 18th green in the Sunday dusk 16 years after his first, but the most transparently precarious is an attempt to suggest that he has returned here not only as the old great golfer but an entirely new and perfectly integrated human being.

On the eve of the start of the 77th Masters, for example, he was lobbed a half volley of a question based on the assumption that having regained his No 1 golf ranking he is now a contender for Father of the Year.

"Life is better now," the Tiger declared after being asked how it is he is balancing his paternal responsibilities to his five-year-old daughter Sam Alexis and four-year-old son Charlie Axel following his divorce from their mother Elin.

"It is a beautiful juggling act," Woods said before outlining his idea of how the bonding will go down the years. "That's the joy in life, being part of their life and watching them grow and helping them grow. Getting out there and taking them on the golf course with me every now and again, they will have a great time. To me, that's what it's all about. That's how I was introduced to the game, that's how I built such a great relationship with my father having quality time out on the course.

"I've been lucky enough to have a nice little set-up in the back yard [of his $39m estate on Jupiter Island in Florida] so I can hit a few wedge shots and the kids will come out and enjoy it, too."

No doubt Sam Alexis and Charlie Axel will enjoy many more play facilities than their father's golfing workshop but the Tiger's projection of Happy Families still seems to carry us back to the heart of a tragedy that came so close to destroying its central character.

However Woods re-invents his own boyhood, we know of his father Earl's obsessive demand that he become a phenomenal golfer who might just change the course of humanity. There is also no shortage of witnesses ready to testify that the army veteran father's own extra-marital activity was reflected strongly enough in the near unravelling of his son's historic golf career which led to the ending of his marriage and the new status of – whatever the hypocrisy involved – national pariah rather than sports demi-god.

However, in the hours this morning before Woods joints England's Luke Donald and American Scott Piercy on the first tee that denouement might be a fragment of some ancient history.

His Ryder Cup partner Steve Stricker – widely credited with advice that has helped bring back the putting stroke which was once the most devastating weapon in all of the game – insists: "Tiger has his game back in order and this is because he also has his life in order. He is smiling a lot, he is looking forward not backwards."

Another mentor and friend, 1998 Masters champion Mark O'Meara also believes that Woods is ready to re-instate a barrier that will separate him from all rivals, including the mercurial Rory McIlroy.

"I never believed that Tiger had lost all those qualities that made him such an outstanding player, possibly the greatest in history," said O'Meara. "He has found his old game – and his old belief."

Paul Azinger, former American Ryder Cup captain and a member of the generation ushered away from the heart of the game by the arrival of Woods here as a record-breaking 21-year-old champion in 1997, could hardly be more emphatic about the scale and the substance of the resurrection, and said: "I never believed it when people were saying: 'Everyone is catching up; the new players are better and they're not intimidated by Tiger any more' – and I totally disagreed he had dropped to their level.

"There are great players but I believe the gap between Tiger and the next best guy may be the size of the Grand Canyon again if he continues to putt in the way he has been doing recently. Let's face it, no-one on the face of this earth has ever putted like Tiger Woods, especially under pressure.

"Tiger feels pressure like everyone else but he just deals with it better. He had to forgive himself and find peace again if he was to play at the highest levels and snare another Green Jacket. I feel like the Masters is his to lose. It's all on him this week."

Such is the American consensus. In every corner here, except perhaps the one by the gate where a religious fanatic insists that God hates everyone who deviates from even the strictest of His words, there is the belief that the re-making of the Tiger has happened quite seamlessly.

Of course there is much residual affection for Phil Mickelson, a three-time winner and the player of some of the tournament's most unforgettable shots, and of the foreign raiders McIlroy has already created a considerable aura, but even such notables have been cast into the chorus line.

One local headline proclaims the widely received wisdom: "A Happy Tiger is a Dangerous Tiger... Scandal seems a world away. Woods is relaxed, ready and at peace."

There are times when you are bound to recoil at the extent by which the re-anointment of celebrity figures can take on industrial levels. But then as Augusta re-embraces the Tiger not only as a great sportsman returned to buoyant life but also as the tournament's prime asset, it is necessary to remind yourself of what the real story may prove to be over the next few days.

It is not some airy idea that the Tiger has taken a long hard look at life and his own role in it and come up with an entirely new perspective. It is not the revised confections of a corporate America which not so long ago appeared to have turned so irrevocably against him.

Woods has not come to walk down Magnolia Lane in sackcloth and ashes. He has come to re-assert one of the most extraordinary talents in the history of sport and if he does it, as the suspicion has to be that he will, there will be glory enough.

It will not require any additional embellishment beyond the simple acceptance that a man who seemed to be at breaking point has re-imagined and re-constructed himself – not as a rounded human being but a pure competitor – more profoundly than anyone since Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman in Africa 39 years ago.

When Ali restored himself, he said, in so many words, that he had invaded and overwhelmed the imagination of the world. Woods' imagery is unlikely to be ever quite so grand but the point will be implicit enough should he, in three days' time, again move around Amen Corner in his red shirt and with a winner's stride.

He will have proved, like the great fighter, that all the talent in the world is no good if you do not have a renewable will to beat anyone who comes into your path.

Tiger Woods, Father of the Year? It is a fantasy new sponsors may one day wish to re-create. Meanwhile, much better to settle for him as sportsman of the ages.

Augusta: All the details

Tee times for Thursday and Friday (all times BST; US unless stated):

2.06pm/5.13pm M Weir (Can), L Westwood (Eng), J Furyk

2.17pm/5.24pm B Snedeker, R Ishikawa (Japan), J Rose (Eng)

2.50pm/5.57pm Z Johnson, K J Choi (Kor), G McDowell (NIrl)

3.34pm/6.30pm B Watson, I Poulter (Eng), S Fox

3.45pm/6.41pm T Woods, L Donald (Eng), S Piercy

3.56pm/6.52pm J Day (Aus), R Fowler, P Harrington (Irl)

4.29pm/1.22pm M O'Meara, M Laird (Scot), J Donaldson (Wal)

5.57pm/2.39pm A Cabrera (Arg), S Garcia (Sp), A Scott (Aus)

6.19pm/3.12pm H Mahan, H Fujita (Japan), F Molinari (It)

6.30pm/3.23pm P Mickelson, L Oosthuizen (SA), M Kaymer (Ger)

6.41pm/3.34pm R McIlroy (NI), K Bradley, F Jacobson (Swe)


Thursday Sun and storms. Max temp: 29C

Friday Another mixed day, drier in afternoon. Max temp: 26C

Saturday Staying dry and sunny, with cloud in evening. Max temp: 24C

Sunday Pleasantly dry and sunny, overcast later. Max temp: 24C

TV 7pm-12.30am, Sky Sports 1.

Leading odds 9/2 T Woods, 12/1 P Mickelson, R McIlroy, 16/1 J Rose, 22/1 K Bradley, 25/1 A Scott, C Schwartzel, 28/1 B Watson, L Westwood, L Oosthuizen, 30/1 D Johnson, 33/1 L Donald.

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