To Mark O’Meara, it sure looked like the Tiger Woods of old at Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday.
The one who won 71 PGA Tour events from 1996-2009, not the player who went 21/2 years without a PGA Tour win until eight days ago.
O’Meara played nine holes with Woods, whose career was sidetracked by injuries and personal problems.
“Everything I saw out there today was extremely good,” O’Meara said.
Woods, who has four Masters Tournaments among his 14 major championships, was healthy enough to play eight days in a row, culminating with a victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational on March 25.
“I talked to him on Sunday night after he won,” O’Meara said of the March 25 victory. “He said it felt like old times out there again.”
O’Meara said winning for Woods is “like riding a bike. When you’ve won the tournaments he’s won and had the career he’s had ... I know it’s been a tough 21/2 years, but yet, it’s in there. He just needed to dig deep and find it. … When you haven’t won in a while, it’s tough. Nerves are part of the game, and even he gets nervous, yet he was certainly in control on Sunday at Bay Hill.”
Woods tied for fourth in the Masters in 2010 and 2011. He was one of eight players who had a share of the lead in Sunday’s final round last year.
“The win at Bay Hill was huge for him and for his confidence,” O’Meara said. “We know what he’s capable of doing here even when he’s not quite on his game.”
According to O’Meara, Woods now is on his game.
“I expect him to play well here,” he said. “I’d be shocked if he doesn’t. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t. He’s driving the ball well. He’s powerful again. He’s got a little bit of pep to his step again coming off a victory.”
The momentum Woods is riding could bring him his first victory in Augusta since 2005. Nine times in his career he has had streaks of consecutive wins, including two streaks of six in a row and one of five in a row.
“You look at the way he’s played coming off victories, he usually tends to do it again,” O’Meara said. “It’s not a pushover by any means because a lot of guys are playing well, a lot of young players. There are going to be some guys that are going to be in contention. Certainly, guys who have had past good experiences here, I think they’ve got a little bit of an advantage.”
Heading that group of young players O’Meara alluded to is 22-year-old Rory McIlroy, whose victory in the Honda Classic on March 4 moved him to the top of the World Golf Ranking for two weeks.
McIlroy, now second in the ranking to Luke Donald, is considered a co-favorite with Woods in the 76th Masters. At least two golf publications have said as much with cover stories.
“It’s not a two-man tournament,” said Adam Scott, who tied for second in last year’s Masters. “It’s a good story for everyone to write about. There is no doubt Rory has elevated himself – for two weeks he was the best player in the world. He’s played so well. And now Tiger winning a tournament again kind of validates – if he needed to validate anything to anyone, he did it.
“He’s in great form coming into this, which is one of his pet events. It’s a good story to write about but I don’t think I’ve ever seen in life the fields deeper in these events with more guys having the ability to win than ever.”
Geoff Ogilvy, who tied for fourth last year in the Masters, says Woods, McIlroy and three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson are the players to beat.
“I think most players who come here, the ones who are competitive, are coming here to try to win the golf tournament,” Ogilvy said. “They don’t see the tournament as Rory vs. Tiger, but I think most people would say if we want to win this tournament, we have to beat Rory and Tiger. Everyone probably thinks they can win, but they are probably the two toughest guys, along with Phil, who has to be up there because he is playing well again and he’s as good around here as anybody.
“If you’re going to win this tournament, you’re going to have to beat Rory, Tiger and Phil. I don’t think they’re the whole show, but you have to beat them to win. And you would assume they’re going to be in the picture with nine holes to play.”
Woods has been working with instructor Sean Foley since August 2010 on his third swing change since winning the Masters as a 21-year-old in 1997.
“I really like what he’s doing,” O’Meara said after he finished his 18-hole round on Sunday. “I think it’s feeling a little more natural to him. He’s such a gifted athlete. I’ve always been a big fan that he needs to play. He’s got an incredible gift.”