By Steve DiMeglio for USA Today Sports
(KSDK Sports) -- There's just something about Tiger this year.
The look is different, the swagger is back. The joy is evident, the smiles more frequent. And with club in hand, he is reminiscent of the Tiger who dominated the sport for a decade.
Just three years removed from a public scandal that shattered his home life, tarnished his impeccable image and wrecked his play on the golf course, Tiger Woods is in a better place these days at one of his favorite places in the world.
Having rebuilt his swing under relentless analysis and sharpened his putting stroke after a tip from a friend, the red shirt on Sundays means something again. He will be the prohibitive favorite when the Masters begins Thursday. This towering presence who has won six times in his last 20 starts on the PGA Tour -- including his past two -- is again No. 1 in the world.
"He's so happy," said fellow golf pro Steve Stricker, who gave Woods a putting lesson a month ago and joined Woods for a practice round Sunday at Augusta National. "He's smiling, he's joking around. He's in a good mood. He seems a little more at peace with himself.
"He must have things in order."
Outside of the ropes, it appears he does. After a single-car accident outside his former home in Florida in November 2009 -- a crash that led to revelations of serial infidelity and ultimately cost him his marriage and millions of dollars in endorsements -- Woods has slowly rebuilt his life one day at a time and his game one swing at a time.
Further removed from his divorce in 2010, he seems happy as he and Olympic ski champion Lindsey Vonn announced via Facebook and Twitter last month that the two are dating. He is sharing custody of his two children, daughter Sam, 5, and son Charlie, 4. And he is as healthy as he has been in years, his surgically reconstructed left knee and aggravating Achilles injuries posing no threat, which allows him to fully train and practice.
Put it all together, Woods looks poised to get back on track in pursuit of Jack Nicklaus and his record 18 majors. Woods has been stuck on 14 since winning the 2008 U.S. Open -- missing four of the last 18 majors due to injury -- and the four-time Masters champion hasn't won at Augusta National, the first major of the season, since 2005.
"I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game," Woods said Tuesday in a news conference. "I feel that I've improved and I've gotten more consistent, and I think the wins show that. That's something that I'm proud of so far this year, and hopefully I can continue it this week and the rest of the year."
Stricker and other players on the PGA Tour say Woods appears more at peace with himself off the course, which they believe correlates to improved play on the course. Without expanding or giving away too much, Woods says there is a correlation between the two.
"Life is all about having a balance, and trying to find equilibrium and not getting things one way or the other, and I feel very balanced," Woods said. "I think it's just a balance in life, and I think that's what you're seeing."
TIGER, THE FATHER
The world is also seeing a different side of Woods, even to the point of talking about his children. Notoriously private, he lights up when he recalls how Sam loves to run around and pick flowers while Charlie hits golf balls with Daddy on the three-hole course in the backyard of his compound in Jupiter, Fla.
How he loves to color and play tennis with Sam. How he cherishes the putting contests he has with Charlie, who thrusts his tiny fist in the air when he makes a good putt just like Daddy does. How they love to see Daddy win -- because they want to see the trophy. Earlier this year, the kids were in the crowd at the Honda Classic, with Sam holding up a "Go, Daddy" poster.
The once-singular focus he had toward his golf career is crowded now.
"Life is better since I've had kids," he says. "It's a beautiful juggling act. â€¦ That's the joy in life and to be able to be a part of their life and watch them grow and help them grow."
Yet Woods, 37, remains intent on catching -- and then surpassing -- Nicklaus in his lifelong pursuit of the most major championships won. Although Woods has reclaimed the top spot in the world rankings, there are those who insist he won't truly be back until he wins a major.
That baffles some of his colleagues.
"Everyone is waiting for the first major. I don't know why they're waiting for that," golf pro Hunter Mahan says. "I think he's done enough this year to realize that ... he's still better than everyone else. ... I think he's the man again."
Woods hasn't been the man in the green jacket at the end of the day since he, as is customary as the defending champion, helped Mickelson slip on the cherished garment in 2006. The year before, Mickelson did the honors after Woods won the 2005 Masters with a 15-foot birdie on the first playoff hole.
A stunning 0-for-7 drought has followed for the man Nicklaus once said would win more green jackets than the 10 he and Arnold Palmer won at Augusta.
"It does," Woods says when asked whether it bothers him that he hasn't won his fifth green jacket. "I put myself in the mix every year but last year, and that's the misleading part. It's not like I've been out of there with no chance of winning this championship."
Indeed he has been. He has five top-4 finishes -- including two seconds -- and a tie for sixth in his last seven starts.
"I've been there, and unfortunately just haven't got it done," Woods says. But "as of right now, I'm tied for second on the all-time win list here, so that's not too bad, either."
PUTTING HIS WAY BACK
Major champion and ESPN golf analyst Paul Azinger says Woods is primed to break the tie with Palmer. (They've each won four Masters.) Considering the off-the-course turmoil and public shaming Woods endured, Azinger wasn't surprised to see Woods' game fall off and his mental strength on the golf course diminish. But Azinger never thought Woods was done.
"People were saying, 'Oh, everyone is catching up, the players are better, they're not intimidated by Tiger anymore,' and I totally disagree. Tiger dropped to their level," Azinger says. "There are great players. But I believe the gap between Tiger and the next best guy may be the size of the Grand Canyon again if he continues to putt that way."
Azinger was talking about the change he has seen since Stricker gave Woods a tip last month at the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship at Trump Doral Resort north of Miami.
The tip dealt with how Woods stood over the golf ball. Woods then needed just 100 putts in wrapping up the win, his lowest total in a 72-hole tournament in his career. Two weeks later, Woods won again in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Golf Club in Orlando, relying on strong iron play and superb putting.
"Let's face it: no one on the face of the Earth has ever putted like Tiger Woods putts, especially under pressure," Azinger says. "Tiger feels pressure like everyone else. He just deals with it better."
While noting that some people will never forgive Woods for his off-course transgressions, Azinger says that Woods had to forgive himself and find "peace again" if he was to play at the highest levels -- like snaring another green jacket.
"I feel like (the Masters) is his to lose," Azinger says. "It's all on him this week."