PALM HARBOR, Florida, March 7 (Reuters) - Tiger Woods has warned the new wave of young golfers like Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas that he and Phil Mickelson could be forces to reckon with at next month's U.S. Masters.
Woods drew the biggest galleries during practice for this week's Valspar Championship and at Wednesday's Pro-Am and is keen to build on his 12th place at the Honda Classic in his most recent event following his return to action after back problems.
Woods applauded Mickelson's playoff win at last week's World Golf Championship in Mexico over PGA Championship winner Thomas.
"I thought it was great. He's been playing well. I mean he played well at the end of last year and got off to a great start this year. He's been in contention a few times," Woods said of his the 47-year-old Mickelson, his long-time rival.
"What Phil is doing is showing us we can still do it later on in our careers. For me, I'm ecstatic to have a chance to play again and to have a chance to win golf tournaments and compete."
Woods returned to the gym to build up his strength after the Honda two weeks ago.
"I've come around very quickly. I've only played 10 rounds," said Woods, who missed the cut at Riviera and tied for 23rd at Torrey Pines in his first two events of the year.
"I know people are saying that I've been erratic, a little inconsistent. But 10 rounds, it's not that many."
The 42-year-old American said he was fine-tuning his game and planning a visit to Augusta to prepare for the April 5-8 Masters, which would mark his first appearance in a major since 2015.
"I just want to keep progressing. Making small changes, small tweaks. I was able to do it the last tournament I played in and hopefully I can make up a few small tweaks this week," Woods said.
Woods said it might not be wise to dismiss veteran players who have had success at Augusta.
"Jordan (Spieth) has always played well. (But) I'm not going to put it out of the realm if Freddie (Couples) feels good, he's still in the mix. Bernhard (Langer) is still in the mix. Phil, myself, Bubba, a few others ... we know how to play the golf course. It fits us," said Woods.
Spieth, the 2015 Valspar champion and Masters winner who will tee it up alongside Woods in the first two rounds here, reckoned Mickleson's triumph could spur Woods on.
"Seeing Phil win I think was really cool for Tiger to recognise, 'I've got all this time to be able to still get to that high level'," Spieth said.
"It still wouldn't be surprising if come Masters time he's in the hunt on Sunday." (Editing by Ed Osmond)