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Despite winning questions still around Tiger

Tiger Woods is back. Or is he?

The 29-year-old American is back at the top of the official world rankings and has returned to the major winner's circle, but he is certainly not the dominant figure of five years ago.

Although he clinched the ninth major victory of his career in a playoff for the U.S. Masters on Sunday, he did so in spite of a decidedly scrappy finish.

Two strokes clear with two holes to play after producing a miracle birdie at the par-three 16th, the Woods of 1999 and 2000 would have closed the deal with minimal fuss and clinical precision.

However, he found pine trees off the tee on 17 and a bunker with his approach at the last, running up bogeys on both holes to let his playing partner and compatriot Chris DiMarco back into the tournament.

The gutsy DiMarco, for his part, refused to buckle in bright spring sunshine at Augusta National.

He safely parred the final two holes of regulation play -- and very nearly snatched the green jacket from Woods when he struck the flag on 18 with a chip from in front of the green for a birdie-three.

The Woods of 2000, who won the last three majors of that year in record-breaking style, would never have opened the door to a chasing opponent when in control of a major down the stretch on the final day.

Some leeway needs to be given, though, to the best player the game has known since Jack Nicklaus.

Woods, who drew level with fellow American Ben Hogan and South Africa's Gary Player on nine career grand slams with his fourth Masters triumph, has recently completed the second revamp of his swing since he turned professional in 1996.

Britain's six-times major winner Nick Faldo famously reconstructed his swing with coach David Leadbetter before making his impact at the highest level but it is unprecedented for a player to do so twice.

Woods still needs time for his new swing to bed down in the heat of battle at the majors, even if it is unlikely he will ever regain the aura of dominance he enjoyed when winning seven majors out of 11 between August 1999 and June 2002.

"I've won seven majors with the other swing, or six majors and one previous with a different swing here the first time around," Woods, said referring to his maiden Masters victory in 1997 when aged 21 before he began his first swing change the following year. "So it did all right."

Woods has made no secret of his burning desire to chase down the record major tally of 18 owned by Nicklaus, but he believes he needs to become a better player with a better swing if he is to succeed.

"I've kind of battled the last couple of years to work hard on my game and make some changes," said the American, who ended a run of 10 majors with out success on Sunday.

"I wasn't winning major championships. I contended a couple times and didn't win but, for the most part, I wasn't in contention on the back nine on every major like I like to be.

"That's where you want to be. It was nice to get back there again and be in contention with a chance to win coming up the back nine on Sunday. It's a thrill."

The signs are certainly there that Woods is a better player today than he has been over the last two years.

Despite opening with a two-over-par 74 at Augusta which featured a putt off the green and into the water of Rae's Creek at the 13th, he charged into contention with middle scores of 66 and 65 and a Masters record of seven consecutive birdies.

Although he wobbled over the two closing holes on Sunday, his miracle chip-in from back down the slope on the 16th hole was the shot of the tournament -- and probably also of the year.

Tiger is very nearly back, and has not finished yet.


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