Tiger Woods may have come up just short in his bid to win the Valspar Championship over the weekend, but the 14-time major champion is now firmly in the conversation when it comes to predicting the winner of next month's Masters.
Less than six months ago, Woods, 42, acknowledged he was not sure whether he would even play competitive professional golf again, as he continued his recovery from a fourth back surgery.
Yet he looked fit and sharp at Innisbrook's Copperhead course as he posted four scores of 70 or better and finished just one shot behind tournament winner Paul Casey in a dramatic finale.
Although Woods narrowly failed to win a PGA Tour event for the first time since 2013, he is now widely priced as the second-favorite for the first major of 2018, which takes place April 5-8 at Augusta.
Woods has won the Masters on four occasions, albeit most recently in 2005.
Here's a look at four reasons Tiger could once again triumph at Augusta.
40 the new 20-something?! Phil Mickelson, 47, ends drought of 4+ yrs & now well done, hearty congrats @Paul_Casey, 40, on 1st @PGATOUR win since 2009. Fantastic 65 w/ just 21 putts at @ValsparChamp! And well done @TigerWoods! You're getting there my friend. Sure it won't be long!
— Jack Nicklaus (@jacknicklaus) March 11, 2018
1. THE 'TIGER' FACTOR
Woods has not won a major since 2008, while a number of poor outings in unsuccessful previous comebacks from injury have undoubtedly weakened the aura of a player once renowned for his ability to instil fear in his rivals.
Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how young stars such as Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm and Jordan Spieth would react if they found themselves going head-to-head with Woods over the closing holes next month.
The attention surrounding Tiger — from fans on and off the course — is unprecedented, as evidenced by the enormous crowds that followed his every move this week at Palm Harbor.
If Woods is in contention with nine holes to play at Augusta, then the nerve of his fellow competitors would be tested to the extreme.
Tiger has shown repeatedly in the past that he can handle that pressure. Can the same be said for his rivals?
2. AUGUSTA KNOW-HOW
The last three Masters champions have been first-time major-winners, but it is instructive to note how often the same names crop up on leaderboards at Augusta.
Experience clearly can provide a significant advantage when it comes to plotting a successful strategy on the only course to host a men's major every year.
Augusta's greens, in particular, are notoriously tough to adapt to, but Woods has conquered them on multiple occasions — his tally of four green jackets surpassed only by Jack Nicklaus.
Even though his last win there came in 2005, Woods has since finished in the top six at the Masters on seven out of nine appearances.
— Masters Tournament (@TheMasters) April 2, 2017
3. SPIETH AND RORY OUT OF FORM
PGA Championship winner Thomas would appear to be the form horse as the Masters nears, while the recent performances of world No. 1 Dustin Johnson have been encouraging, if not spectacular.
However, two perennial Masters contenders, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, will be hoping to see significant improvements in their respective games before arriving at Augusta.
Spieth — who claimed the green jacket in 2015 before sensationally throwing away the chance to retain his title 12 months later — missed the cut at the Valspar Championship after being grouped with Woods and has yet to finish higher than ninth this year.
And although McIlroy began 2018 strongly, with two top-three finishes on the European Tour, his four subsequent outings in the U.S. have yielded one 20th-place finish, a tie for 59th and two missed cuts.
4. SHORT GAME SHARPNESS
Arguably Woods' lowest hour amid his succession of unhappy comebacks came in January 2015, when he ran up a shocking 82 at the Phoenix Open.
At that point, the standard of Tiger's chipping was the most alarming issue.
Woods had always been famed for his prowess around the greens, but looked to have lost all confidence in his short game in a painful performance.
Happily, a return to full fitness also appears to have enabled Woods to rediscover his golden touch in the scoring zone. His chipping has looked increasingly sharp in 2018 — epitomized by a superb hole-out on Saturday at Palm Harbor.