Woods sneaks off to Augusta to fine tune his comeback swing

World No 1 serves Masters warning to rivals with intense 72-hole practice session

Tiger Woods has just proved how determined he is to make his competitive return a winning one by completing two intensive days of practice at Augusta. The world No 1 is believed to have headed back to Orlando late last night after playing 72 holes on the course where he will contest the Masters in a fortnight's time.

Woods flew to Georgia early on Monday morning, a few hours after the screening of the first interviews he had granted since the car crash outside his home in November which led to a torrent of revelations about extra-marital affairs. Golf Digest reported that Woods embarked on an exhaustive programme in which he played two rounds followed by a lengthy short-game session. He was due to undertake the same schedule yesterday.

Woods has not played competitively since winning in Australia on 15 November. As the 34-year-old did not begin practising again until three weeks ago, he plainly needs as much fairway time as possible. But there was undoubtedly more to his trip than simple reconnaissance of the layout where he has won four green jackets. As Woods commented during the five-minute sit-downs he gave to ESPN and the Golf Channel: "I know how to play that golf course."

Woods normally practises at Isleworth, the private course in the gated community where he lives. For the last two days the Tavistock Cup has been held there and in any other year Woods would have been teeing it up in this made-for-TV exhibition match. Augusta offered a bolthole to continue his behind-closed-doors preparations. Woods will be attempting to become the first golfer to win the Masters on his first start of the season since Ben Hogan 57 years ago. Remarkably he is 3-1 favourite to do just that, despite the fact he has not prevailed there in five years.

While Woods insists his game is not yet ready to play in tomorrow's Arnold Palmer Invitational – and so enjoy a warm-up event – the word from Isleworth suggests he is, in fact, playing as well as ever. Indeed, after playing with him on Thursday, Friday and Sunday last week, John Cook declares his friend's form to be "vintage".

"From what I've seen the last three days with his ball-striking I think he will win at Augusta," said the former Open runner-up. "I don't see anybody hitting the ball like he does. It was vintage. If he takes that game up there, I'd be hard-pressed to see anybody beating him."

Cook, however, realises there will be other factors than mere match-fitness threatening Woods' challenge for a 15th major. "We all know that that's not the whole battle, there are a lot of other issues there for him," he said. "You have to go up to the first green and mark your ball and you have to finish out and sign your name at the end of the day – that's a whole different deal. It will be his first rounds of golf for five months. But he just got through something that takes all the fortitude you have. If he can survive that, playing golf is nothing."

Arjun Atwal, another PGA Tour professional, made up last week's threeball and was just as effusive as Cook about the man who apparently took all the money. "Woods feels he's not totally ready, but I think he's ready," said Atwal. "He's very mellow now, very chilled out. He's also hitting it longer than before, there's no doubt. He's killing it, absolutely killing it. Nothing seems rusty, nothing at all. He thinks he isn't putting very well – but for us mere mortals it seems okay. If Tiger gets that putter going at all, he'll probably win the Masters."

Seve Ballesteros is thrilled to see Woods returning to golf – the sport would have been in "serious difficulties" without him – and despite not having had the privilege of seeing him up close, still believes he has a "great chance" of winning the Masters.

"His return is good for the golf world and I am very happy about it," Ballesteros said after being presented as the patron of Spain's bid to host the 2018 Ryder Cup. "It is going to help golf in all the world. I think that Tiger Woods takes over so much that if he wasn't around, if he had retired, the golf world would be in serious difficulties.

"He is used to playing long off the tee and he knows Augusta very well, so he has a great chance to win."

Yet not everyone is so excited about the talk of Woods's return. Said England's Ian Poulter: "We are all speculating. I just hate this nonsense. We don't know how he is going to play. I just hate all the chit-chat. I'm bored of it."

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