Tiger Woods reacts after making a putt from off the green for eagle on the second hole during a practice round for the Masters on April 2, 2018, at Augusta National.


Liguori: Tiger Woods' Resurgence, Wins From Top Names Stir Masters Frenzy

Plenty Of Intriguing Storylines At Augusta This Year

Ann Liguori
April 03, 2018 - 9:35 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Talk about excitement leading into this Masters. I can’t remember another Masters week when the level of anticipation was higher. Yes, Tiger Woods has returned to play here for the first time in three years, becoming one of the favorites to win less than a year after undergoing spinal-fusion surgery and rehab for prescription painkillers. Add the fact that many of the top names in the sport are peaking at the right time, and this year's Masters is serving up an "anything can happen" hysteria.

Woods’ impressive comeback is responsible for most of this frenzy, which has caused ticket prices for practice rounds and tournament play to soar. Reports say average ticket prices for Sunday are $2,400 per badge. According to Las Vegas oddmakers, Woods is tied with Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas -- all at 10-1 -- to win the green jacket.

Woods played nine holes Monday afternoon with Thomas and Fred Couples. Galleries eight to 10 rows deep followed the popular players, and louder roars than usual were heard, roars one would expect to hear during tournament play on the weekend.

“If you watched him play today, he’s hitting it a long way, and it looks beautiful," said the 58-year-old Couples, who has had his own back troubles for a long time. "So today wasn’t any different than it was 10 years ago when I played with him. It’s pretty awesome.”

When asked if he's surprised at how well Woods is hitting the ball, Couples shared: “Am I surprised? No, because forever, he was the best player in the world, and then he had some issues. ... Only thing I laugh about in all of this is for him to think he had chipping yips (years ago). Because I’m playing nine holes, and I’m not even bending over to putt. I’m standing straight up and hitting them. When I come out here on Thursday and I get a shot, I’ve got to bend over. You feel every movement, so to try to chip and do all that. It’s almost like you lose everything you have, all the touch. I told Tiger, ‘If you can’t stand over the ball and worry about your hands and the shot verses your back, you’re not even going to hit a good chip. It’s not really worth it, and that’s all I ever really told him."

Woods, who won the Masters in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005, underwent four back operations from March 2014 to April 2017. He missed three of the past four Masters. Now he's back here, playing pain-free for the first time in years.

And I’m guessing Dr. Richard Guyere, who performed his latest back procedure, is as estatic about the results as Woods must be. Guyere performed "minimally invasive fusion L5/S1 vertebral segment at the base of spine." In other words, he removed Woods' damaged disc, re-elevating the collapsed disc space to normal levels, allowing one vertebrae to heal to the other.

“I got a second chance on life," Woods said on his website last week. "I’m a walking miracle."

What a 180-degree turn from last fall during the President’s Cup, when Woods said he may never play golf again. Soon after he made that statement, doctors gave him the all-clear.

And his results the last few weeks have resembled the Woods of old. He placed 12th at the Honda Classic, tied for second at the Valspar Championship (with a swing speed clocked at 129.2 mph) and tied for fifth place at Bay Hill. He was within a shot of the lead on the back nine in the final round in his last two tournaments.

Of course, the storylines coming into this Masters, which begins Thursday, are limitless, adding to the Tiger frenzy, because:

• Phil Mickelson won for the first time in five years at last month's World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship. The 47-year-old is very capable of rekindling the magic that won him three green jackets.

• McIlroy, in search of a career grand slam, shot a 64 in the final round to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in mid-March. The 28-year-old has certainly found his swing and putting stroke after a winless 18-month span.

• Thomas, the 2017 Player of the Year and winner of the PGA Championship and FedEx Cup, won the Honda Classic in mid-February and is breathing down Johnson’s neck to grab the top ranking in golf.

• Johnson started off the year with a win at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and hopes to add to his 2016 U.S. Open title.

• Bubba Watson, who has called his winless 2017 “one of my lowest points in life,” has notched two wins in the last five weeks: the Genesis Open in February and the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play in March. The two-time Masters champ, armed with creative shot-making and a new attitude, can win a third.

• And Jason Day, who tied for second in the 2011 Masters and finished third in 2013, won the Farmers Insurance Open in January at Torrey Pines, his first title in 20 months. He is poised to add a green jacket with his 2015 PGA Championship trophy.

There are so many more possible contenders -- and a hot Tiger on the comeback trail. Expect incredible drama this week at the Masters.

Follow Ann on Twitter at @AnnLiguori