Tiger as confident as ever

Dan Wetzel

AUGUSTA, Ga. – A year ago Tiger Woods, fully aware his knee was a mess, surveyed the landscape of golf and declared anyway that capturing a Grand Slam was "easily within reach."

Tuesday he returned to Augusta National, returned to the major championship stage. With a rebuilt knee and a game still potentially rusty, he didn't blink in the face of expectations.

A Grand Slam this year?

"Well, I know I can do it," he said. "I've done it. It's hard for me to sit here and tell you that it can't be done because I've done it before."

The profound part of that proclamation is not what Woods said – obviously it can be done. It's what he didn't say. It's always that way with Tiger.

There would be no elaborations here, no excuse making, no bar lowering, no reminders that he's still trying to get back into form, the victory at Bay Hill or not. He wouldn't downplay a thing. He wasn't into introspection or cute stories about his kids or insightful discussions about his opponents.

He wanted everyone to know that he's back and ready to dominate major championship golf, starting Thursday. Period.

"You enter a tournament to win," he said.

Monday it was announced Michael Jordan had earned enshrinement into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and he wasn't all that excited. He lamented that going into the Hall meant his career really was over. Physically, the 46-year-old knew this. Mentally though, Jordan still thinks he could walk back into the NBA and win.

That's Jordan and that's Woods and it isn't a surprise that later Jordan talked about how outside of watching his own children play basketball, he enjoyed watching Woods play the game of golf about as much as anything in the world.

The great ones never doubt; or, at the very least, never express it. And Woods didn't at his Tuesday news conference. He was determined, focused and frank.

Do you expect to win (possible shaken confidence)?

"Always," he said.

Any concerns about the knee holding up at hilly Augusta (possible physical weakness)?

"We won't have a problem here," he said.

Considering your injury, rust and the rise of some other challengers, what's your biggest concern coming here (possibly rattled by uncertainty)?

"How the golf course is going to be playing," he said.

Would you define your rivalry with Phil Mickelson (who might be ready to challenge again)?

"He and I have certainly competed head-to-head quite a few times … the person I've gone head-to-head against the most has been Ernie [Els]."

Did you watch Padraig Harrington win the two majors you missed on rehab (possible new challenger)?

"I watched the tail end of both," he said, unconcerned.

Considering Harrington is half way to a Grand Slam, what's his chances of getting it done (possible challenger to history)?

"Well, it's not going to be easy," he said.

Woods was full-bore Tuesday. He remained polite and there wasn't any direct trash talk, but the message was clear.

His confidence could be just that, confidence that he can walk out there and win his fifth green jacket.

It was undoubtedly a shot across the bow of the rest of the field though, a bit of gamesmanship that might make the difference this week. This was full-on Tiger with each essentially empty answer packed with not-so-hidden meaning.

He wasn't talking to the reporters; he was talking to his opponents.

If the thought that a confident Tiger and a slightly-if-politely-dismissive-about-what-went-on-in-his-absence Tiger scares people, then he'll be fine with that.

That was Jordan's game too.

Woods put it out there that he's eager to match up with whoever dares to get in his way this weekend. He said he's desperate to again experience the thrill "of contention and feel the rush again on the back nine … That's something I've been missing."

He's starting to make that commercial about his peers enjoying his absence and then being crushed about his return into real life. The guy looked giddy at the idea of going in for a final-round kill.

Before he hobbled off the 91st hole of the U.S. Open last June at Torrey Pines, Woods had put together a stunning streak in the majors. In the previous 14, he had won six times, finished runner-up four times and had two more top-five finishes.

He dominated on the grand scale. He knows that with the added intrigue of his return from injury, and the excitement from the dramatic Bay Hill victory, his 15th major may be his grandest stage yet.

Whether he has enough to win will be determined starting Thursday. On Tuesday, he wanted everyone to know that knee rehab or not, there is no question he believes he will emerge victorious. The great ones always do.