Tiger hunting fifth green jacket

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- He was asked about his teens. He was asked about his senior citizen days to come. He was even asked about the state of his goatee.

Apparently it was Career Arc Day at the Masters, as a bemused and reflective Tiger Woods -- at least by TW standards -- seemed to enjoy Magnolia Lane and Nostalgia Lane during his annual pre-Masters news conference.

This is Woods' 19th Masters. Think about that for a moment. He's been here more often than pimento cheese sandwiches.

Woods played a practice round earlier this week with Chinese amateur Tianlang Guan, who was born nearly four years after Woods made his Augusta National debut. Guan didn't walk back to the clubhouse and his room in the Crow's Nest; he floated up there with his Woods-autographed ballcap.

We've seen Woods' hairline recede, but his green jacket collection grow. We've seen him win spectacularly and lose boringly. He is the Masters' version of time-lapse photography, his career evolving in front of us from 1995 to, well, who knows how long?

"We have very expansive careers and I feel like I'm basically right in the middle of mine," Woods said.

There's a difference between being in the middle of a career and being in its sweet spot. Yes, Woods is 37 and looks like he could win a bar fight. And yes, he can still unleash the hounds when it comes to hitting his driver, still cause the rest of the field to look over its shoulder and still win tournaments (six in the past 13 months).

But can he win his first major since 2008? Can he end a Masters oh-fer that began after that 2005 victory?

"I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game," he said.

That's Tiger-speak for: "Next question."

Of course he can win here. In fact, if he and his putter don't get into an argument Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, he's going to win this thing. The guy is locked in.

"He's playing the best," said Bubba Watson, the man who, if the odds hold up, would help Woods slip into a green jacket come Sunday. "He's No. 1 in the world. If you're No. 1 in the world, I think you should be the favorite."

The favorite has been here so long that he qualifies for historical landmark status. He's seen the course and the membership change. He's gone through rivalries like sleeves of golf balls -- Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, David Duval and Rory McIlroy.

He's seen Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen tee off here. Come Thursday at 7:50 a.m. ET, if he wants to walk out to the first tee box, he'll see Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player do the honorary starters gig.

Woods is a Masters icon. At least one person Tuesday thought of him as a future artifact.

"Could you foresee a time when you could come here and be an honorary starter?" a reporter asked.

Nobody wants to be confronted with their own golf mortality, especially Woods. But give him credit -- he laughed as he considered the question.

"Let me just try to get to 40 first," Woods said.

The number he really wants to reach first is 15, as in majors victories. Then 16, 17, 18 (to tie Nicklaus' career majors record) and then 19 (to break it).

The No. 1 world ranking is nice, but he would trade No. 1 for No. 15.

"Oh, absolutely," he said. "Are you kidding me?"

He played his first practice round here in 1995. It was a Monday, the week of the tournament. He made the turn, walked to the No. 10 tee box and pounded a driver. ... right into the fairway bunker.

"OK, that's not going to work," he muttered to himself.

He got to Amen Corner and tried to make sense of the strange winds that make the Kate Upton of par-3s, No. 12, so difficult.

"You hear guys saying, 'Don't pull a club on 12 until you see both flags on 11 and 12 are moving the same direction,' " he said. "They are never moving the same direction. ... You get down there and Bobby Jones has turned this fan on down there and it swirls."

Woods was learning the nuances of this place. Nineteen years later, he's still perfecting that knowledge.

He was a teenager back then. Now he's a divorced father of two.

He doesn't hit a 1-iron anymore. His body doesn't stretch like it used to. He's stronger, to be sure, but he's also older, to be sure.

"It's [Michael Jordan] jumping over everybody and then the next thing you know, he's got a fadeaway," he said.

So far this season, Woods has shown he still has hops. He jumped over everybody at the Farmers Insurance Open, the WGC-Cadillac Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

But this is Augusta. This is the Masters.

So maybe Woods uses the combo platter. A dunk here, a fadeaway there. It worked for MJ.