Tiger Woods senses game improving

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods knows Augusta National Golf Club so well that other players seek him out for advice -- a practice he used to employ during his early years playing the Masters.

Now about to play in his 18th Masters, Woods, 36, takes all that knowledge and a seemingly stronger game into the tournament, which begins Thursday. He's seeking his fifth Masters title after tying for fourth each of the past two years.

"I certainly am excited about playing and really looking forward to getting out there and playing," Woods said Tuesday after a nine-hole practice round with Fred Couples and Sean O'Hair. "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 is coming off a victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on March 25th, the 72nd of his PGA Tour career and his first since the 2009 BMW Championship. He won in December at the Chevron World Challenge, but that event is not considered an official tournament.

The last of Woods' four Masters wins came in 2005. Since then, he has finished no lower than sixth.

Two years ago, Woods was playing his first event after a five-month self-imposed break to deal with personal problems. Last year, in the midst of swing changes with coach Sean Foley, he was tied for the lead with nine holes to go but was unable to close out a win.

"I wasn't hitting the ball very good," Woods said of his play the past two years. "It was just having an understanding of how to play around this golf course and coming to a course we play each and every year certainly helps."

In 15 appearances at Augusta National as a pro, Woods has finished out of the top 10 just three times.

This year, he has plenty of formidable competition. No. 1-ranked Luke Donald comes into the Masters off a victory at the Transitions Championship. No. 2 Rory McIlroy has been out of the top 10 just once going back to the PGA Championship. Top-ranked American Hunter Mahan has won twice this year, including Sunday at the Shell Houston Open.

And three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson has been gearing up for the Masters for weeks, having made two separate visits to Augusta to scout out the course.

Donald is looking for his first major championship after winning money titles on both the PGA and European tours in 2011.

"Obviously, Tiger is always the guy who pushes the needle the most, and obviously Rory gets a lot of attention now," Donald said. "But for me, that's probably a good thing. I can kind of go about my business and just get on with things."

Woods is looking for his first major in nearly four years; he won the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines for his 14th.

Among all of the majors, his run at the Masters in recent years might have been the most frustrating. He's had chances every year.

"It's just tough out there," he said. "You get on a roll here, but you've still got some tough holes to play and you've got to take care of them.

"It seems like most of the guys have a run of, let's say, four to eight holes where they really do some damage. ... It's hard to sustain over an entire round for some reason. I think the golf course, it's just so difficult, so subtle, that it's just hard to do."

Woods will play the first two rounds with Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez and South Korea's Sang-Moon Bae. They tee off at 10:35 a.m. ET Thursday and at 1:42 p.m. Friday.

A win would give Woods his 73rd PGA Tour victory, tying him with Jack Nicklaus for second on the all-time list behind Sam Snead's 82.

"I'd like the green jacket more," Woods said. "I know the 73 (wins) would be a by-product of it, but I'm here for the green jacket."