Woods backed to make winning return

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Tiger Woods has 22 more days to get ready for the Masters - and there are those who believe he is capable not just of playing well on his return, but winning.

Fellow American Rocco Mediate, the man beaten in a play-off when Woods won his 14th and last major at the 2008 US Open, said: "I don't have any worries about what he'll do when he comes back.

"If he wins the Masters it will not be a surprise to me. Period.

"If anyone can do it. He can do it. If anyone can pull this off, he'll pull it off.

"I know he hasn't been around for a while and I know he's been through hell, but physically he's OK and mentally he's got to deal with it."

The world number one's former Ryder Cup partner Jim Furyk added: "You never bet against him.

"He seems to be able to take a bunch of time off and pop right up there and be the same old guy.

"Not many players, no-one that I know of, are actually capable of that. But he does it well."

England's Justin Rose, hoping to play well enough in Florida this week that he climbs back into the world's top 50 in time for Augusta, commented: "I'm sure he's going to be motivated.

"I think the best way for him to put this all to rest is to win the golf tournament, so that's obviously going to be his goal."

And Swede Carl Pettersson stated: "I wouldn't be surprised if he wins just because he's that type of guy. It'll be interesting."

Woods, who took an indefinite break from golf in a bid to save his marriage after reports of a string of extra-marital relationships and who has been in hiding for most of the time since he won the Australian Masters in mid-November, has decided not play a warm-up event.

The unofficial two-day Tavistock Cup on Monday and Tuesday and then the Arnold Palmer Invitational starting next Thursday were both options.

But the 34-year-old, who would have been the defending champion at Bay Hill, does not consider himself sharp enough so soon after coming out of his sex addiction clinic.

"When I finally got into a position to think about competitive golf again it became apparent to me that the Masters would be the earliest I could play," Woods said in yesterday's statement.

"The major championships have always been a special focus in my career and, as a professional, I think Augusta is where I need to be, even though it's been a while since I last played.

"I have undergone almost two months of inpatient therapy and I am continuing my treatment. Although I'm returning to competition, I still have a lot of work to do in my personal life."

He gave Palmer the courtesy of a call before announcing his decision and the 80-year-old, also the holder of four Masters titles, gave his reaction last night.

"He sounded good. He had some zip in his voice. He sounded just fine," said Palmer.

"He knows what he wants to do with his life and the way he's going to handle it and I guess we're going to give him that respect.

"I would think for Tiger it's going to be tough. It's going to be something that's going to take him a little time to get used to.

"He expressed his regret for not being able to play. He said that he was sorry, that he really didn't feel his game was up to speed to start playing this early."

The Masters is an all-ticket tournament with only a limited number of media given credentials, so it will be a quieter environment for the comeback than anywhere else.

Palmer added: "Augusta is one place in the world that you can really have control.

"They will control everything from the crowds to the situation that will be facing Tiger. I think that if there is a place in the world that you can do that and do it properly, Augusta will do that."

Inevitably, television viewing figures will go through the roof as Woods resumes his bid to overtake Jack Nicklaus's record 18 majors.

Woods has said nothing yet about where he will play post-Masters, but he will surely now try for a fourth Open title in July - and his third at St Andrews.

He won there by eight in 2000 and by five five years ago and Royal and Ancient Club spokesman Malcolm Booth said: "We're pleased to hear that Tiger is to return to golf. Golf needs the world number one to be playing."

Woods' remaining sponsors Nike, Gillette and Electronic Arts have all, not surprisingly, stated they are looking forward to his return too.