AUGUSTA, Ga. — Allow us to state the obvious: Tiger Woods is not a kid anymore.
He's not the 19-year-old amateur who showed up at Augusta National in 1995 and wowed Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
He's not the 21-year-old phenomenon who destroyed the Masters record book en route to a 12-shot victory in 1997.
He's not the young man who won back-to-back Masters titles in 2001 and '02, or chipped in from behind the 16th green — his golf ball rolling slowly and inexorably toward the cup as if drawn by unseen cosmic forces — to win again in '05.
The guy who will tee it up Thursday in search of his fifth Masters title and his 15th victory in a major championship is not that guy and never will be again.
That Tiger Woods was a physical freak of nature fused to an indomitable will.
This Tiger Woods is 37 and has overcome injuries to his knee and Achilles tendon and damage to his pride and reputation. He has clawed his way back to the top to find a landscape littered with Rory McIlroys and Bubba Watsons.
His body has changed, stronger overall but less flexible. His swing has changed. His life away from the course has changed — divorced from Elin Nordegren, dating skier Lindsey Vonn, a single dad juggling career and kids.
"I think life is all about having a balance and trying to find equilibrium and not getting things one way or the other," Woods said Tuesday. "And I feel very balanced."
He said he doesn't want to be the golfer he was a dozen years ago; he wants to be better. And while that may not be possible, there is no denying that Woods is once again atop the golf world, pre-eminent if not dominant.
He has reclaimed the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking, is winning at a 60 percent clip this year on the PGA Tour — three victories in five starts — and has won six times since the start of the 2012 season.
"I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game," Woods said. "I feel I've improved, and I've gotten more consistent, and I think the wins show that."
Perhaps most importantly, he is putting well again, thanks in part to a tip from Steve Stricker a few weeks back. History shows that when Woods putts well, he is almost unbeatable.
"You can break down his game and a lot of things that have gone on in the last four or five years, but one thing he hasn't done very well is putt," said two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North. "He's doing that better now.
"It looks like he's more comfortable. It looks like he's got a lot of confidence and you put all that together, and you'd better watch out."
Woods won the Masters three times in his first six starts as a professional but has won it just once in the last 10 years and takes a seven-year drought to the first tee Thursday.
"It does (feel like a long time since I won)," Woods said. "I put myself in the mix every year but last year and that's the misleading part. It's not like I've been out there with no chance of winning this championship.
"I've been there and unfortunately just haven't gotten it done."
True enough, his finishes from 2006 through 2011 were, in order, tied for third, tied for second, second, tied for sixth, tied for fourth and tied for fourth.
He managed that record despite turmoil in his personal life and injuries that prevented him from putting in the marathon practice sessions he needed to groove a reconfigured swing.
Now that he's healthy and playing well and has achieved "equilibrium" off the course, Woods once again is the prohibitive favorite at Augusta National. It's a good thing for golf, because nobody in the game comes close to moving the needle like an in-form Woods.
"To me, the anticipation is almost like a heavyweight fight, when Ali is getting ready to step into the ring with Foreman or Frazier," said former PGA champion Paul Azinger.
No offense to the 23-year-old McIlroy, a wondrously gifted player, but he's not yet in Woods' league. Even McIlroy pointed out that his résumé pales in comparison with Woods' — six victories to 77, two majors to 14.
"Rory missed seven cuts in one year a couple years ago; Tiger has missed eight cuts in 17 years," Azinger said. "They're not the same guy."
And so, Woods resumes his quest to break Nicklaus' record of 18 major championship titles. The fact he hasn't won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open hasn't persuaded him to lower the bar.
In fact, Notah Begay, who played with Woods at Stanford, competed against him on the PGA Tour and remains one of his closest friends, said Woods' goal was not 19 majors, but 20.
"Obviously, the older he gets, if he doesn't win it, makes my record move out further," Nicklaus said. "But I've said it, and I continue to say that I still expect him to break my record. I think he's just too talented, too driven and too focused on that."
Just as importantly, Woods is rejuvenated. He might have been an old 32, but now he is a young 37.
"It took Jack awhile to get to 18, all the way until he was 46 years old," Woods said. "So there are plenty of opportunities for me."
Starting this week.
When: Thursday through Sunday
TV: ESPN (3-7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday) and CBS-27 (3-7 p.m. Saturday; 2-7 p.m. Sunday)