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Tiger Woods returns confident and relaxed

Mark O'Meara, left, walks alongside Tiger Woods during

Mark O'Meara, left, walks alongside Tiger Woods during a practice round before the start of the 2015 Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 7, 2015 in Augusta, Georgia. Credit: Getty Images / Jamie Squire

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Times have changed, Tiger Woods said, and so has he. It used to be that he made his father proud at the Masters and now he is proud to be here with his children. Once, he made other pros quake just by showing up and now showing up is a triumph in itself.

"I worked my [butt] off," Woods said at Augusta National Tuesday, free from the two-month hiatus he took to find his game. "That's the easiest way to kind of describe it. People would never understand how much work I put into it to come back and do this again. But it was sunup to sundown. If the kids were asleep, I'd still be doing it. Then when they were in school, I'd still be doing it."

After all of that, particularly with effort to repair a ramshackle short game, Woods pronounced himself fit to compete at the Masters, his favorite stop. "I needed to have all facets of my game come around," he said. "They all have."

That assessment will be fully tested starting at 1:48 p.m. Thursday, when he tees off in the next-to-last group of the day with Jimmy Walker -- a two-time winner on a tour from which Woods has been mostly absent this season -- and Jamie Donaldson.

Before that, Woods will play in the Par-3 Contest Wednesday, something he has not done since 2004. In the intervening years, he never wanted to deal with the distraction of an event that has become increasingly lighthearted and focused on the golfers' young children. The nature of the contest is exactly why he is entering this year. His two children will caddie for him.

"We all know what happened in '97, with my dad's health and he was pronounced . . . well, he was dead at one point earlier in the year and then came here and I won the Masters," Woods said. "To now have come full circle and to have a chance to have my kids out there, and be able to share that with them, it's special."

His news conference Tuesday was something of a special occasion. Woods appeared more open and affable than perhaps he ever has been before. He admitted that there were times during his practice sessions that he threw his clubs. "[They] traveled some pretty good distances, too," he said.

Time was, his drives traveled farther than just about anyone's. Now, he said, "I know I can pump it out there to 320, but I can't carry it out there each and every time like some of the big guys can."

Still, in terms of garnering attention, he is the big guy. His presence has eclipsed Rory McIlroy's pursuit of the career Grand Slam and a third consecutive major. "I did have posters of him on my wall and I did idolize him, really," McIlroy said. "I think if you ask a lot of golfers that are my generation, he was the benchmark. He was the inspiration for us to go out and try to be the best we could be."

Woods laughed when he recalled the days when he and Vijay Singh were the only ones who hit the gym. "And now everyone has their trainer here this week," he said.

He insists that his day is not done. Phil Mickelson, who played behind Woods Tuesday, agreed, saying his old rival "looked impressive." Mickelson added, "His short game has always been astoundingly good. I just don't think it's a hard thing to get back."

But can a person regain a knack for greatness, just like that, in these new times? "Yeah, I won the Masters when Jordan was in diapers," Woods said. "I'm feeling older, there's no doubt about that. Try chasing around 6- and 7-year-olds all day, you start feeling it. But the good news is my soccer game has gotten a lot better."

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