By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - While this week's Masters is one of the most anticipated in years with so many players bringing good form to Augusta National, Tiger Woods once again commands the spotlight.
The former world number one has a renewed spring in his step after ending a 30-month title drought on the PGA Tour with a win at last month's Arnold Palmer Invitational and is unquestionably the player to beat at a venue where he triumphed four times.
Woods has been installed as a 4-1 favorite by British bookmakers Ladbrokes to win his 15th major title on Sunday and he exuded a quiet confidence when he spoke to reporters after playing nine holes in practice on Tuesday.
"I certainly am excited about playing and really looking forward to getting out there," the 36-year-old American said of Thursday's opening round.
"I feel like I'm driving the ball much better than I have. I've got some heat behind it, and it's very straight.
"My iron game is improving so everything is headed in the right direction at the right time."
Woods, who won the most recent of his Masters titles in 2005, has always relished competing at Augusta National given its relative lack of rough and slick, heavily contoured greens which place a premium on a razor-sharp short game.
"Playing here for so many years now, this is my 18th year here, so understanding how to play this golf course has really helped me over the years," he said.
"It's also coming here to a golf course that I know. Knowing how to play it, and just the history behind this tournament, makes it so special."
JOLT OF CONFIDENCE
Woods' victory at Bay Hill, his first in a full-field event since the 2009 Australian Masters, has given him a much needed jolt of confidence ahead of the year's first major.
"It felt good to go out there and play as well as I did and under those conditions," he said of his five-shot triumph at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. "It wasn't like it was easy that Sunday. The scores were pretty high."
Woods began the final round at Bay Hill a stroke behind Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, before going on to seal his first win since the very public breakdown of his marriage after sordid details of his affairs were revealed.
"It was just a process," Woods said of his work with swing coach Sean Foley. "I've been putting together two good rounds, eventually three, and now four. I just had to keep sticking with it and getting more experience working with Sean.
"This year you can see the numbers. End of last year and most of this year, I've been in contention. I'm just continuing the process."
U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy and three-times Masters winner Phil Mickelson are among several top players competing this week who have produced good early season form.
Woods, however, is the leading contender, according to nine-times major champion Gary Player.
"It's hard to go against Tiger Woods," said the 76-year-old South African. "When Tiger Woods is playing his best, there's nobody better playing than Tiger Woods.
"This man has won 14 major championships already. And only having won once in the last two years, he's got a great hunger and a great passion, and a focus that is hard to match."
If Woods can clinch his fifth green jacket on Sunday, he would draw level with Jack Nicklaus on 73 PGA Tour victories.
"I'd like the green jacket more," Woods said. "I know the 73 would be a by-product of it, but I'm here for the green jacket."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)