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Tiger Woods says he’s ready to play golf again “at the highest level”

At the end of the year, Tiger Woods turns 40.

Maybe that doesn’t move the needle a whole lot in normal life. But for a career in professional golf, especially in today’s era when the sport has gotten deeper with the constant waves of fearless 20-something standouts, it is like reaching the two-minute warning.

Saying his back feels fine, and his short-game woes are well behind him, Woods — golf’s former undisputed king — is playing this week’s 79th Masters tournament at historic Augusta National Golf Club. It will be his 20th career tournament appearance.

He hasn’t won a major title since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines South Course in La Jolla, California, and he approaches the 10-year anniversary of his last Masters victory — a playoff triumph over Chris DiMarco in 2005.

Or to put a different spin on it, if Woods does not get a victory this week, it will mark a winless-in-his-30s-decade at the Masters, which would widely be considered a wasted heyday at arguably his favorite major championship venue.

Nobody is suggesting Woods, a four-time Masters champion, cannot win this week. But he certainly isn’t the favorite — oddsmakers have listed defending champion Bubba Watson, top-ranked Rory McIlroy and streaking Jordan Spieth as the men to beat.

Woods said he is ready to fire it up after a two-month layoff.

“My game is finally ready to compete at this level — the highest level,” Woods said.

Which begs the one question that will soon be answered: Is it?

The last time anybody saw Woods on a course, he was limping off Torrey Pines North Course with a stiff back at the Farmers Insurance Open in February. He withdrew after 11 holes of his opening round.

The week before, at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Woods has difficulty hitting chip shots. He finished second-to-last in the field, and missed the cut.

So Woods took an extended leave to get things ironed out with new instructor Chris Como.

“I was stuck between two release patterns (with the golf club),” Woods said. “Going down the path I was going, it was going to take time and effort (to fix it).”

Virtually out of sight for those two months, Woods was asked how he spent the time off.

“I worked my (butt) off — that is the easiest way to kind of describe it,” Woods said. “People would never understand how much work I put into it to come back and do this again.

“It was sun up to sun down, and whenever I had free time. If the kids were asleep, I’d still be doing it. When they were in school, I’d still be doing it. So it was a lot of work.”

Longtime followers of Woods’ career have mentioned they have seen a change in him this week. Many have said Woods might be softening up.

There certainly have been visible tidbits to validate that idea. With his earphones in, and hip-hop music blaring, he was seen dancing around in between shots during chipping practice Monday.

Even with a large press gathering, he seemed more relaxed. He smiled 12 times during his 25-minute interview, often cracking one-liners.

And this year he has agreed to play in the Par 3 contest Wednesday — something he has not competed in since 2004. His two children, Sam and Charlie, will caddie for him.

“Charlie has seen me win a golf tournament before. Sam … was there at the U.S. Open in 2008 but doesn’t remember it,” Woods said. “It’s nice to be able to share these things with my family. They are excited. I am excited.”

Everything now in Woods’ career revolves around breaking Jack Nicklaus’ career major championship mark. Nicklaus won 18 majors; Woods is stuck at 14.

“It would have been a bad thing for the sport if he had not been able to come back,” said McIlroy, the reigning British Open and PGA Championship winner. “Hopefully this is the start of a period where he can play continuously and have a good run at it because, you know, he’s 39 … and he’s got maybe a few years left where he can play at the top level. He’s going to give it his all.”

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