AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Despite his drought at major championships and the personal turmoil that knocked him well down in the world rankings, Tiger Woods still is in a class by himself, according to his peers. That includes the peer most often considered to be in Woods' class.
"I don't see myself as a rival to Tiger, or anyone,'' said Rory McIlroy, whom Woods recently supplanted as No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking. "When you speak of rivals, you tend to put rivals who have had similar success. He's got 77 PGA Tour [wins], I've got six. He's got 14 majors, I've got two. If I saw myself as a rival to Tiger, I wouldn't really be doing him much justice.''
Even though he has not won a major since June 2008 and has not won at Augusta since 2005, other golfers still believe Woods still is the clear favorite in the Masters starting Thursday.
Phil Mickelson said: "I think that even at times when he has not played his best, you know what he's capable of, so you're always looking at his score. You're always worried about him making that big run the way he's always done.''
It is not lost on anyone that Woods has won three tournaments this year and occasionally has been dominant. "It does,'' Mickelson said, "have the feel of what we expect to see from Tiger.''
But the truth, as Woods pointed out Tuesday, is that he is almost totally different than he was when he first won here in 1997 and even when he was unbeatable in 2000 and the years right after that. He mentioned he isn't nearly as limber at 37 as he was at 21, but he is much stronger. He has a different swing, different coach, different priorities. He has covered some rough road.
He reacted with something between a smile and grimace when the moderator at his news conference said this is Woods' 19th Masters. "Yeah, scary,'' he said, making it sound like another epoch, when he watched Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead make the ceremonial first swings. "You have to adapt and you have to play and you have to adjust.''
Some adjustments are easier than others, some are downright enjoyable. "Life is better,'' he said. "Life is better since I've had kids.
"It's a beautiful juggling act,'' he said, referring to the son and daughter he had with his former wife, Elin. "That's the joy in life, to be able to be a part of their life and watch them grow and help them grow. Getting out there and taking them on the golf course with me every now and again. To me, that's what it's all about. That's how I was introduced to the game, and that's how I built such a great relationship with my father. I've been lucky enough to have a nice little setup in the backyard.''
His previous dominance built the estate on Jupiter Island in Florida. But it also enabled a lifestyle that sent his career tumbling for a few years. As much as his counterparts consider him a favorite this year, they have said the same things about him since 2005 and he hasn't won since then.
"He has been in contention every year,'' Jack Nicklaus said when he was asked about the dry spell. "I don't think it's any big deal. I'm sure he does.''