US golfer Tiger Woods leaves the course after his practice at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland on June 24, 2014US golfer Tiger Woods leaves the course after his practice at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland on June 24, 2014 (AFP Photo/Mladen Antonov)
Bethesda (United States) (AFP) - It's hard not to get excited about seeing a healthy Tiger Woods resume his quest to beat Jack Nicklaus' major win record, even for those rivals trying to beat him.
Woods, a 14-time major champion still four majors shy of matching Nicklaus' mark, returns from a three-month injury lay-off Thursday at the $6.5 million USPGA National.
The 38-year-old American, who has not won a major title since the 2008 US Open, has an eye on next month's British Open and the PGA Championship in August and closing the major win gap on his boyhood idol.
"You've got a guy that's reaching almost 40 who is the best player of his generation, trying to become the best player of all time, so it's really exciting times," four-time major winner Ernie Els of South Africa said.
"He feels like he's really healthy and that's a positive."
Woods has had to adjust his swing to ease the stress on his knees and back but remains driven to overtake golf's most iconic record.
"Tiger's swing has changed through the years. He's changed it because of his body," Els said. "But he's got the strongest mind out here.
"So I think with that in mind, I think he's got a real good chance of still breaking Jack Nicklaus' record."
Woods has not played since struggling to a 78, his worst-ever final-round score, at Doral on March 9.
Since then, Woods underwent a microdiscectomy to ease pressure on a pinched nerve and spent the past three months slowly working himself back to health, missing the Masters for the first time in his career and the US Open just two weeks ago.
But having Woods healthy and at his best against the world's top players has restored a spark that golf lacks without him, according to 2013 US Open winner Justin Rose of England.
"There's always a fascination in terms of watching Tiger play golf and the run that he's been on throughout his career and what he still has to achieve in terms of his goals," Rose said.
"I think golf will get really exciting if he starts winning a couple more majors and the race to 18 becomes incredibly on again. That's incredibly exciting for the game of golf and will draw a lot more interest in the game once again."
This week's event at Congressional Country Club is a Woods warm-up for the British Open in three weeks at Royal Liverpool, where Woods won the Claret Jug in 2006. Three weeks after that comes the year's final major tournament, the PGA Championship at Valhalla, where Woods won it in 2000.
"He's chasing history," Els said. "He's in a position unlike any other player currently playing the sport that he can change history, so that's really important for him and for golf going forward. It's going to be really interesting. It's going to be an exciting time for himself and for the fans to see what he can do."
Australian Jason Day, a Masters and US Open runner-up added: "It's fantastic to see him back on the golf course. I think golf needs Tiger in the game.
"Obviously he has changed the game for us. It's pretty special to see him back. He has always been a hero of mine as I was growing up."
Playing this week should boost Woods' chances of again contending for a major crown at Royal Liverpool.
"No matter who, there's an element of getting the rust off and if I was Tiger Woods I would probably be looking at the Open and the decision to play here is because he doesn't want to be rusty at the Open," Rose said.
"He always talks about being here to win and I'm sure that is the case but I'm sure there could be an element of looking a week or two ahead for the Open."
Woods will play alongside Australian Jason Day and US star Jordan Spieth in the first two rounds.
"It's fantastic to see him back on the golf course. I think golf needs Tiger in the game," Day said. "It's pretty special to see him back. He has always been a hero of mine."