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AUGUSTA - Tiger Woods still has the shot-making skills and aura of intimidation to win the Masters this week after a five-month layoff, according to rivals trying to deny him a 15th major golf championship.
And worse yet for opponents, putting his now-infamous sex scandal behind him might make Woods even tougher to beat. Admitted adultery destroyed the golden-boy image of Woods, a 34-year-old married father of two who has had more than a dozen women claim sexual affairs with him since the firestorm struck golf's world No 1 last November.
Woods returned this week to a warm, though not overly embracing, reception from spectators during practice rounds at Augusta National Golf Club, where the year's first major event starts today with Woods in the penultimate group.
"The guy is so talented and mentally strong that if he can get rid of the outside factors, he could perform at a higher level. That will be interesting to watch," said No 2 Steve Stricker.
None of his rivals doubt Woods can win this week despite the 144-day layoff since he won in Australia, citing his familiarity with a famed course upon which he has won four times and his magical skills.
"We've spent 15 years underestimating what he can do," said Australian star Geoff Ogilvy. "I have 100percent confidence in his ability to win."
That's in part because until last August, in his final major before the sex scandal broke, Woods had never lost a major when leading after 54 holes.
"Most golfers would see what went on in Tiger's life as his personal side, which has no real bearing on his golfing life," three-time major winner Padraig Harrington said. US star Phil Mickelson, whose wife Amy has battled with breast cancer, expects to see Woods play at a high level this week. - Sapa-AFP