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Jerry Sullivan: Tiger stirs Masters excitement

Broadcast legend Jim Nantz will work his 33rd Masters for CBS next week. Nantz's first assignment in Augusta was in 1986, the year Jack Nicklaus won his 18th and last golf major at age 46. How many times have we seen a replay of Nicklaus in his yellow shirt, raising his left arm aloft after making that long putt on Sunday?

Jack's win in '86 was an indelible golf moment, perhaps the greatest of the last half-century. But Nantz said this year's Masters is the most anticipated of his career. He's not alone. Every golf fan is looking forward to it. I haven't been this excited since heading to San Diego to cover the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.

The main reason: One Eldrick "Tiger" Woods, who is newly relevant and one of the favorites for a fifth green jacket after making a remarkable recovery from back surgery.

One year ago, Woods couldn't even swing a club. He sat through the annual Champions Dinner on Tuesday before the Masters, suffering from leg and back pain and despondent at not being able to share the joy of competing with the other players.

"I was debilitated," Woods said recently on his web site.

Two weeks after last year's Masters, Woods underwent back fusion surgery, his fourth back procedure since 2014. In late May, police in Jupiter, Fla., found him asleep behind the wheel of his car and charged him with DUI. In June, he checked into rehab for an addiction to prescription medication that helped him deal with pain and a sleep disorder.

Photos released from the arrest made Woods look like some pathetic character, a joke. His golf career was in jeopardy. Only the most ardent Tiger fan could have imagined that, just 10 months later, he would be favored to win the Masters.

“That’s kind of funny,” Woods, 42, said. “Quite a shift. Six months ago the odds were I wasn’t even going to play.”

Woods didn't expect to return to form so soon. He refers to himself as a "walking miracle." In February, he made the cut at the Farmers in his second tour start in two years. After a missed cut, he came alive on the Florida Swing: 12th at the Honda Classic; tied for second at the Valspar, a long putt on 18 from a playoff; tied for fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

People noticed. During the final round of Valspar Championships, the PGA Tour had its biggest TV ratings in five years, not counting majors. The last time they were that high? When Woods won the Players Championship in 2013. Golf Channel's lead-in window had the highest ratings in its nine-year history.

So imagine what the interest will be like on Thursday, and if Woods is on the leaderboard come Saturday/Sunday in his 21st Masters. In recent years, I've accepted his absence and said golf was fine without him. But he lifted the sport to new heights in his prime, and it's much more interesting when he's in the hunt.

It's not just Woods, though. This Masters is even more compelling because the global talent is so high and many of the more recognizable names are playing well this season.

Rory McIlroy is on his game and needs a Masters title to complete the career slam. Phil Mickelson, with three green jackets, recently won in Mexico at age 47 to break a five-year drought. Bubba Watson, twice a Masters champ, won at Riviera and in last week's WGC Match play. Justin Thomas is the hottest player in the world.

Woods, McIlroy, Thomas and Dustin Johnson, who withdrew from the Masters last year after a freak fall at his rental home, are all 10-1 in the latest Vegas odds. Let's not forget Jordan Spieth, who has stumbled this season but has finished second, first, second and 11th in his four trips to Augusta.

I could trot out another dozen names (Paul Casey, anyone?), some of them relatively obscure international players, who could make a run next week in Georgia. It's hard to win a single major these days, never mind 14 – which is where Woods has been stuck since that memorable playoff win over Rocco Mediate in the '08 U.S. Open.

Watching Woods win that 19-hole playoff at Torrey Pines on a bum knee was one of the top five highlights of my career. It was his 14th major title. I figured he was a cinch to pass Nicklaus. Nearly 10 years later, he hasn't won another.

Shortly after the '08 Open, Woods had his fourth knee operation. His woes were only beginning. In 2010, his marriage fell apart when he was exposed as a serial philanderer. He spent 45 days in a Mississippi clinic for sex addiction.

I lost respect for Woods as a man back then. He was a shell of himself as a golfer afterwards, seemingly stripped of his invincible aura, exposed as a fraud. But one thing America loves more than seeing its heroes dragged down and dehumanized is seeing them rise back up again.

That's the best story of all, the tale of an athlete's redemption and return to past glory. In his prime, I told myself never to underestimate Woods. But after his troubles, I figured he'd never win another major. It would be a remarkable achievement if he simply became healthy enough to play in one again.

But here he is, hitting it far, chipping it close and making big putts. It's not like the old days, where he could be even-money against the field. But he's got a chance. The oddsmakers are being a little kind to him, but maybe that's because there's some residual fear of the killer he was in his prime.

"I'm just there to win," Woods said. He sounds like the old Tiger, who expected to win every time he stepped on the course.

I don't expect him to win. But you can bet I'll be watching.

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