Ray McNulty: Watch out for rejuvenated Tiger Woods at the Masters

Tiger Woods, center, walks over the Nelson Bridge with amateur Guan Tianlang, of China,  and Dustin Johnson, right, during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament Monday, April 8, 2013, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

AP

Tiger Woods, center, walks over the Nelson Bridge with amateur Guan Tianlang, of China, and Dustin Johnson, right, during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament Monday, April 8, 2013, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

There's every reason to believe that Tiger Woods will end his 4-1/2-year major-championship drought this weekend at Augusta National.

So that's where the smart money is going: Several Vegas oddsmakers have Woods teeing off Thursday as a 3-to-1 favorite to add a fifth green jacket to his collection.

And why not? Judging by what we've seen thus far this year, Woods appears to be back in championship form.

He goes into the Masters having won three of his first five starts of 2013, including back-to-back victories at the Cadillac Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational.

He has regained the No. 1 world ranking, which can only bolster his confidence as he continues to re-establish himself as the game's best player.

He is healthy, his play no longer hampered by a troublesome left knee.

''I had to look at is as: If I get healthy, I know I can play this game at a high level," Woods said. "I know I can be where I'm contending in every event, contending in major championships and being consistent day in and day out, if I got healthy. That was the first step in the process.

''Once I got there, then my game turned," he added.

It could be that Woods finally has put his past behind him -- the well-publicized infidelities that destroyed his marriage and the injuries that damaged his knee -- and is poised to end a hard-to-believe, seven-year winless streak at Augusta.

After his triumph at Bay Hill two weeks ago, Woods was asked when he last "felt this good" heading into the Masters.

''It's been a few years," he admitted.

And there's something else that could work to Woods' advantage this week: He's winning on his favorite courses.

Woods' three victories this year have come on courses he likes -- Torrey Pines, Doral and Bay Hill, all of them layouts on which he has enjoyed tremendous success throughout his career.

And he loves Augusta National.

Although he hasn't won there since 2005, Woods has been in the hunt on Sunday all but once in the past seven Masters, finishing second twice, third once, fourth twice and sixth once.

He tied for 40th in 2012, which was his worst showing in any of the year's majors. However, his play improved toward the end of the season, producing a tie for third at the British Open and 11th at the PGA Championship.

''I've gotten so much better since those events," Woods said, adding, "I've turned some of the weaknesses I had last year into strengths."

He's definitely playing better golf. He's more comfortable with his swing. His iron play has been sharp. And in his last two wins, he has putted the way he did during his championship runs.

Certainly, someone else in the field could put together four spectacular rounds -- maybe one of the game's young guns, a fearless group of challengers who have emerged since Woods last won a major.

Or Woods could stop himself.

Remember: He's 37 years old and hasn't won a major since celebrating his 14th at the 2008 U.S. Open.

It's not unthinkable that Woods, driven since childhood to break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships, might feel the clock ticking and put more pressure on himself to win one this year.

Especially this one.

''It's been one of those things where I've been close there so many times on that back nine on Sunday, and I just haven't won," Woods said. "I've been in the mix, been on the periphery and played myself into the mix. I've been right there with just a few holes to go, and it just hasn't happened.

''Hopefully, this year it will be a different story."

There's every reason to believe it will be -- that Woods will play his best golf on a course he loves and end his major-championship drought.

Unless, that is, he starts thinking about how long it has been since he won one.

(Ray McNulty writes for Scripps Treasure Coast (Fla.) Newspapers, The Stuart News, Fort Pierce Tribune and Vero Beach Press Journal. Contact him at ray.mcnulty@scripps.com; Twitter: TCPalmRMcNulty)

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