Masters 2018: A Tiger Woods triumph surely too much to ask

Can Tiger Woods win the Masters? Certainly.

Will Tiger Woods win the Masters? Probably not.

Golf's biggest star is sure to be the centre of attention at Augusta National this week as he makes his first appearance in a major since 2015.

After all, Woods is not just competing at the highest level once again. For the first time in several years, the former world number one is being touted as a genuine contender for his sport's biggest prizes.

On a host of previous comebacks from injury, Tiger looked a shadow of his former self, struggling badly for fitness and form. Yet his performances since returning from a fourth back surgery late in 2017 have been far more encouraging, illustrated by top-five finishes in his last two starts - at the Valspar Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational.

When you throw in the fact Woods has won 14 majors - four of them at Augusta - and 79 PGA Tour events, as well as topping the world rankings for a staggering 683 weeks, it is easy to see why expectations have risen so sharply ahead of his return to the Georgia course. 

Nevertheless, it remains tough to make a truly convincing case for Woods claiming a fifth green jacket in 2018.

Firstly, while the 42-year-old's own recent form has been positive, he is certainly not alone in that respect.

The likes of Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Jason Day, Bubba Watson, Justin Thomas, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy have won on the PGA Tour this year. All of those men, bar Rahm (whose time will surely come sooner rather than later), have proved they are capable of winning majors, something that can also be said for Justin Rose, Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson and defending Masters champion Sergio Garcia.

Woods' presence on the leaderboard was once enough to strike fear into the hearts of his rivals, but stellar names such as McIlroy, Thomas, Spieth and Rahm are unlikely to be intimidated quite so easily, having made their way in the game after Tiger's golden years as the undisputed king of golf.

Consider what unfolded at Bay Hill last month, where Woods charged into the reckoning with a flurry of birdies, thrilling spectators at a course where he has triumphed eight times.

McIlroy's response to seeing Woods storm into contention was nothing less than emphatic, the Northern Irishman birdieing five of his last six holes to end his own win drought in stunning fashion.

In contrast, Woods dramatically faltered over the closing stretch, pulling a drive out of bounds on the 16th - a hole that demanded birdie at least - on his way to a bogey that was followed by another dropped shot at the next and an unconvincing closing par.

Too much should not be read into one event, of course, but Tiger was also guilty of failing to shine when it mattered most at the previous week's Valspar Championship. Having begun the final round just one shot off the lead, he was unable to build any momentum on Sunday, save for a huge birdie putt on 17 that briefly kept alive his hopes of forcing a play-off.

Backers of Woods would justifiably argue he is still well ahead of schedule. When he began his season at the Farmers Insurance Open in January, it appeared fanciful at best to suggest a bid for major glory was coming any time soon.

Woods' recent efforts mean the odds of him winning another PGA Tour event have shortened appreciably compared to the distressing days - little more than six months ago - when he admitted to being unsure whether he would be able to play competitively again.

Further major success now appears a realistic possibility, even if it has been 10 years since he claimed his 14th title to move within four of Jack Nicklaus' record haul.

Yet victory this week is surely too much to ask given the depth of the field and the fact Woods is still working his way back.

Tiger has posted seven top-six finishes in his last nine outings at Augusta, without adding to his haul of Masters titles. The smart money should be on that trend continuing.

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