By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - While this week's Masters is one of the most anticipated in years with so many players bringing good form to Augusta National, Tiger Woods once again commands the spotlight.
"I certainly am excited about playing and really looking forward to getting out there," the 36-year-old American said of Thursday's opening round.
"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.
"Playing here for so many years now, this is my 18th year here, so understanding how to play this golf course has really helped me over the years," he said.
"It's also coming here to a golf course that I know. Knowing how to play it, and just the history behind this tournament, makes it so special."
JOLT OF CONFIDENCE
"It felt good to go out there and play as well as I did and under those conditions," he said of his five-shot triumph at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. "It wasn't like it was easy that Sunday. The scores were pretty high."
Woods began the final round at Bay Hill a stroke behind Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, before going on to seal his first win since the very public breakdown of his marriage after sordid details of his affairs were revealed.
"It was just a process," Woods said of his work with swing coach Sean Foley. "I've been putting together two good rounds, eventually three, and now four. I just had to keep sticking with it and getting more experience working with Sean.
"This year you can see the numbers. End of last year and most of this year, I've been in contention. I'm just continuing the process."
U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy and three-times Masters winner Phil Mickelson are among several top players competing this week who have produced good early season form.
Woods, however, is the leading contender, according to nine-times major champion Gary Player.
"This man has won 14 major championships already. And only having won once in the last two years, he's got a great hunger and a great passion, and a focus that is hard to match."
If Woods can clinch his fifth green jacket on Sunday, he would draw level with Jack Nicklaus on 73 PGA Tour victories.
"I'd like the green jacket more," Woods said. "I know the 73 would be a by-product of it, but I'm here for the green jacket."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)