Tiger's charm offensive signals coming of age

Augusta (United States) (AFP) - Tiger Woods has been on a charm offensive at Augusta National, but the kinder, gentler and older version of the 14-time major champion sees success as nothing less than victory.

The 39-year-old US golf legend makes his 20th Masters start Thursday after a two-month layoff to improve his game and following a year of nagging injuries, including back surgery that caused him to miss last year's Masters.

After shockingly horrid chipping, a career-worst 82 in January at the PGA Phoenix Open and withdrawing after 11 holes at a Torrey Pines course he has dominated, Woods could hardly be blamed for seeing a ninth top-10 Masters finish in his past 10 starts as a success even if he doesn't collect a fifth green jacket.

But no, winning remains all. No moral triumphs this week.

"I still feel the same way. I want to win. I feel like my game is finally ready to go and do that again," Woods said.

"Competing is still the same. I'm trying to beat everybody out there. That hasn't changed. I prepare to win and expect to go and do that."

But his once-trademark intensity of manner has been replaced by openness, hugs to old friends and bringing girlfriend Lindsey Vonn and his children to the course, having them meet top-ranked rival Rory McIlroy among others.

- Tiger accepts scrutiny -

A man who named his boat Privacy and lived his life that way appears to have mellowed with age and the realization that he will be forever scrutinized.

"I've come to the understanding that I live it. I know exactly what I'm doing out here," Woods said. "It's nice to be back and see some of my old friends and get back to competing again."

When Woods said "Father Time is undefeated" at a December comeback, he might well have meant his old demeanor compared to his joking, outgoing manner this week.

Augusta National was a tonic for Woods after his infamous sex scandal erupted in 2009, but his history of showing fans only what he wanted them to see was blown apart by revelations as multiple mistresses to the then-married star.

So there will be doubters as Woods glad-hands old Masters pals like Mark O'Meara, his solitary man era having evolved into one more likeable to sport fans who were once lured to golf by his overwhelming game.

"What would bother me a lot is all the speculations," said reigning US Open champion Martin Kaymer. "Mentally, it must be quite exhausting... sometimes I look at it and find it quite sad."

McIlroy isn't too sympathetic just yet, since an in-form Woods is a major threat to deny him a Masters victory that would be his third major title in a row and complete a career Grand Slam.

"He has taken a little bit of time away. I know he's been working hard at home, and he seems like he's ready to go," McIlroy said.

"Was I concerned for him? I mean, not really. It's hard to be concerned for someone that's already won 14 (majors) and (79) PGA Tour events and earned over a billion dollars in his career. I think he has done OK."

- 'A few years left' -

McIlroy, increasingly the new face of golf, admits the dominating days of Woods are likely done and the sands are leaving the hourglass on his glory days.

"It would have been a bad thing for the sport if he had not been able to come back," McIlroy said. "And hopefully this is the start of a period where he can play continuously and have a good run at it, because he's turning 40 this year. He's got maybe a few years left where he can play at the top level and he's going to give it his all."

Reigning champion Bubba Watson sees Woods making the first steps on his way to an elder statesman role.

"This place brings it out in you. Older champions, veterans, they get excited around here," Watson said. "That's why everybody comes back. They want to be a part of this. It energizes them."