On top again, Tiger resumes pursuit of Nicklaus

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But something to consider: Nicklaus won only four major titles after the age of 37, which Woods reached in December. Tiger needs five to break the mark, which, as Nicklaus pointed out, “is a pretty good career for most people.”

Considering Woods is almost always in contention at Augusta, even in the down times, and taking into account that he seems to have regained the form he had before injuries and scandalous revelations sent his career into a tailspin, this would seem to be a very important milestone on his road to redemption.

If Woods wins, suddenly, everyone will go back to projecting him breezing right on by Nicklaus‘ record.

But, if he comes up short again, all the doubts are back on the table.

“If he figures it out here, it will be a great boost for him,” Nicklaus said. “If he doesn’t figure it out here, after the spring he’s had, I think it will be a lot tougher for him.”

Around every corner at Augusta National is another reminder that Woods isn’t getting any younger.

He played a practice round with a teenager from China who wasn’t even born when Woods won his first Masters in 1997. He was introduced at his news conference Tuesday as playing the Masters for the 19th time, which caused Woods to bow his head and cover his eyes.

Among dozens of photographs on the walls of the club is one of Phil Mickelson helping Woods _ with a much fuller head of hair _ into the green jacket after Woods won his last Masters, eight long years ago.

“Obviously, I’m not real happy with the fact that I haven’t won more,” Woods conceded. “But the whole idea is to give myself opportunities. And as of right now, I’m tied for second on the all-time win list here. So that’s not too bad, either.”

Woods has changed his practice routine at this major. For years, he was known as a dew sweeper, playing his practice rounds at the crack of dawn. This week, he hasn’t shown up at the course until after lunch.

He played Monday afternoon with 14-year-old Guan Tianlang and Dustin Johnson. After his news conference, Woods headed to the practice range before playing nine holes with Fred Couples.

Asked about the change, Woods was coy, telling a reporter with whom he’s familiar, “Just wanted to mess with you.” He smiled, never giving an explanation, so that much hasn’t changed about Woods.

The biggest difference is his health and his game, which are connected.

There has been so much activity off the golf course _ the extramarital affairs that ended his marriage, changing coaches to rebuild his swing for the fourth time, a move to South Florida to a mansion so large he has his own practice range in the backyard, a romance with Olympic skiing champion Lindsey Vonn _ that it was easy to overlook what he went through with his ailing left leg.

He finally turned a corner last year _ winning three times on the PGA Tour _ and getting back into contention at the majors.

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