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Tiger headed into next phase of his career

Consider the 10 months between his last major and the next one as an intermission in the incomparable career of Tiger Woods, a break in a seamless act of historic and head-turning moments.

The 12-shot victory in the Masters. Winning the U.S. Open by 15 shots at Pebble Beach.

The "Tiger Slam," when he won all four majors in 294 days. Not missing a cut in seven years. Three PGA Tour winning streaks of at least five tournaments. The magic acts, from that putt on the island green at Sawgrass to the chip-in at the Masters that hung on the hole.

And then he was gone.

Woods limped away from his epic U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines and wound up in Utah for reconstructive surgery on his left knee that kept him out of golf for eight months, his longest break from golf in his life.

He returns to the stage at Augusta National, golf's grandest theater, to start what seems like a second phase in his career.

"I can certainly see that, no doubt," Woods said. "I've been playing golf for a long time, and it was nice actually to take that break. I didn't want to take that break - trust me. I didn't want to have to go through all the things I went through. But when it's all said and done, I'm feeling so much better now than I did for years."

Better than ever?

He certainly looks the same.

In his last major, Woods made a do-or-die putt from 12 feet on the final hole to force a playoff at the U.S. Open, which he won the next day. In his last tournament, he matched the largest comeback of his PGA Tour career - five shots - and won the Arnold Palmer Invitational with a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole at Bay Hill in the dark.

But there are changes that those around him have noticed, which the layoff only accentuated.

"He's in a good place," said Mark Steinberg, a close friend and his agent at IMG. "He has balance in his personal life, his business life and balance in his golf life. He has learned not to get ahead of himself. He's been extremely patient. Twelve years ago, patience wouldn't be the word I used with Tiger. Now, patience is a virtue with him."

Woods is 33, a family man. He has lost a father and become a father. He and his wife, Elin, will celebrate their five-year wedding anniversary in October. Their second child, a boy, was born in February.

Mark O'Meara was on the helicopter to Isleworth after the Tavistock Cup last month and recalls a poignant image of the guy whom he befriended when Woods was 20.

"Elin was waiting on him - and this is a side of Tiger Woods that people don't get to see - he grabs his daughter and they hoof it down the road," O'Meara said. "Not in a cart. Just him and his family walking together to their house. He's a good father. Being an only child, I think he's going to do everything he can to be there as much as possible.

"With everything that transpired in the last year - winning on one leg, taking a major break, his son coming into his life - it's been a little bit of a whirlwind," O'Meara said. "It gave him time to reflect where he's at, what he's done, and what he's getting ready to do. I think he'll be back better than ever."

Woods won at Bay Hill in only his third tournament back. It assured his position at No. 1 in the world and made him the favorite again at the Masters, although now with perhaps more challengers since the start of the decade.

Padraig Harrington won the British Open and PGA Championship while Woods was away, and neither came with an asterisk. The Irishman, who has shown a remarkable knack for bearing down on the back nine at majors, goes to the Masters with a chance to join Woods and Ben Hogan as the only players to win three straight majors in the 93 years that there have been at least three on the menu.

"It's nice that I am going for three in a row," Harrington said. "It means I did something right in the last two majors."

The last player who had that chance was Phil Mickelson.

Mickelson hasn't come close to winning another major since that meltdown at Winged Foot in 2006, but that might change. The two-time Masters champion won twice in his last three starts going into the Shell Houston Open - starting, perhaps coincidentally, with word that Woods was ready to return to golf. Perhaps no two players today are better suited for Augusta National than Woods and Mickelson.

Sergio Garcia had a mathematical chance to be No. 1, which only indicates how close he is - not only to the ranking, but toward shedding the burden of the best to have never won a major. He came closer than ever at the last major, the PGA Championship, until Harrington rallied on the back nine at Oakland Hills.

It was Garcia's ninth top-five in a major, as many as Mickelson had when he won his first major at 33.

"I feel like I've been a good, solid player throughout my career," Garcia said. "You guys always compare to one guy, and it's kind of unfair for the rest because he's extraordinary. He's a little bit different than the rest. I feel like I've done well."

Garcia is only 29, but that practically makes him a dinosaur compared with some of these kids at the Masters. Three teenagers - Ryo Ishikawa (17), U.S. Amateur champion Danny Lee (18) and Rory McIlroy (19) - will make their debut at Augusta National, and all of them have already won on recognized tours.

Woods became the youngest Masters champion at age 21 in 1997. This year, 41 players are older than Woods.

Not even he knows how much longer he will play. Woods first said in 2005 that he will leave the PGA Tour when his best isn't good enough to win. Even so, odds are he is closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

Swing coach Hank Haney doesn't see how Woods can do anything but get better, especially now that his left knee is stable.

"One thing Tiger always talks about is trying to improve as a person and a golfer," Haney said. "And when you live your life like that, you'll keep getting better. He just keeps getting more experience, and he's experiencing new things in life. With children, just from being around him, they certainly teach you patience."

Woods is known for a blank stare when he shows up on any given Sunday, particularly when he's in the lead or in the last group. But at Bay Hill, a young boy boldly walked up to him in the breezeway as Woods headed to the practice range and asked for an autograph. "What's the magic word?" Woods said, signing as the boy said apologetically, "Please."

After he failed to birdie the par-5 sixth for the fourth straight day, Woods walked briskly from the green past a 6-year-old boy who said in a quiet voice, "Good job, Tiger."

Woods looked him in the eye and said, "Thanks, little dude."

He was reminded of the tantrum he threw at Doral last year when a three-putt bogey on the last hole put him in a foul mood, even though he shot 67. Woods stormed off the course, into a terse interview and out to the parking lot, fuming until he got to his boat and saw his daughter, Sam, crawling toward him.

"Don't even know what I shot after that," he said the next day.

And how long would he have carried that anger in the early stages of his career?

"There probably would have been a few backup sand wedges that would have been altered," he said, laughing as he got into his car to drive home with another trophy.

SideBar: THE MASTERS

Where: Augusta National Golf Club

When: Thursday-Sunday

Length: 7,435 yards

Par: 36-36-72

Field: 96 players (five amateurs)

Defending champion: Trevor Immelman.

Last year: Immelman became the first South African in 30 years to win the Masters, building a six-shot lead in the final round and closing with a 3-over 75 for a three-shot victory over Tiger Woods. He tied Arnold Palmer in 1962 for the highest final round by a Masters champion. Woods became the seventh player to be a Masters runner-up in consecutive years.

Ten years ago: Jose Maria Olazabal held off Greg Norman on the back nine to win his second Masters.

Twenty-five years ago: Ben Crenshaw holed a 60-foot putt on the 10th hole and went on to his first of two Masters titles.

Fifty years ago: Art Wall became the only Masters champion to start the final round out of the top 10.

Key Statistic: Tiger Woods, who last won a green jacket in 2005, has never gone more than three years without winning the Masters since he won his first green jacket in 1997.

Noteworthy: Three teenagers will be at the Masters - 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa, 18-year-old Danny Lee and 19-year-old Rory McIlroy.

Quoteworthy: "If you can play golf around Augusta, there isn't a test in the world that you can't play golf on." - Padraig Harrington.

TV: Thursday-Friday, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., ESPN. Saturday, 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., CBS Sports. Sunday, 2:30 to 7 p.m., CBS Sports