Tiger Woods smiles after hitting on the practice range during a practice round prior to the start of the 2013 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. (AFP/Mike Ehrmann)
AUGUSTA, Georgia: Tiger Woods, favoured to win this week's 77th Masters and take his first major title since 2008, says he would have won a couple more Masters crowns the past few years had he putted better.
World No. 1 Woods, a 14-time major champion chasing the all-time record of 18 major titles won by Jack Nicklaus, has not won the Masters since taking his fourth in 2005 and has not won any major since the 2008 US Open.
But Woods has won three times this year, his 77 career titles only five shy of Sam Snead's all-time record, and has displayed clutch putting skill in triumphs at Torrey Pines and last month at Doral and Bay Hill.
"I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game," Woods said. "I feel that I've improved and I've got more consistent and I think the wins show that."
Except for last year when he shared 40th, Woods has been a contender at Augusta National since he last won a green jacket, finishing sharing third in 2006, second in 2007 and 2008, sharing sixth in 2009 and sharing fourth in 2010 and 2011 when his infamous sex scandal and injuries hampered his bid.
Asked if he would have had a a couple more Masters victories had he simply putted better over the undulating greens of Augusta National, Woods replied, "Absolutely."
"I was there ball-striking-wise a few years through that stretch where I hit it pretty well, but just didn't make enough putts. I was there on Sundays with a chance, and unfortunately just didn't get it done.
"You have to make your putts. You have to make the majority of the putts inside 10 feet and you've got to be just a great lag putter."
Woods said his 2005 triumph, which came when he beat Chris DiMarco with a birdie on the first hole of a playoff, felt like a long time ago.
"I put myself in the mix every year but last year," Woods said. "It's not like I've been out of there with no chance of winning this championship.
"Not real happy with the fact that I haven't won more. I've been in the mix and just haven't gotten it done.
"But the whole idea is to give myself opportunities and as of right now I'm tied for second on the all-time win list here, so that's not too bad, either."
There's a sense that his top rival this year will be Rory McIlroy, who played the past two weeks to round his game into shape, particularly his swing.
A second-place effort at last week's Texas Open boosted McIlroy's confidence.
"When I don't play my best, it's when I get into bad habits in my swing," McIlroy said. "Whenever my golf swing is where I want to be, that's when I produce results and that's what I've seen has started to happen over the past few weeks."
The Northern Irishman, who saw Woods vault past him to take the World No. 1 ranking last month for the first time since October 2010, hopes to add a green jacket to a major haul that includes the 2011 US Open and 2012 PGA Championship.
He's not worried that Woods is showing his best form in years.
"Doesn't make a difference to me at all," McIlroy said. "I'm here to concentrate on myself and play my game and try to shoot the best score that I can. It really doesn't matter what anyone else does.
"If I can do that, I know I'll have a good chance."
Defending champion Bubba Watson, who has not won since taking last year's Masters, considers Woods the man to beat.
"If you're No. 1 in the world, I think you should be the favourite," Watson said. "It would be kind of weird if he's the underdog and he's No. 1 in the world. He's playing the best. That's all you need to look at."
The last time Woods won back-to-back events just ahead of Augusta as he has this year was in 2001 when he won Bay Hill and the Players Championship before a Masters win completed the "Tiger Slam" of four major triumphs in a row.
"We all know what he is capable of doing," Australian Adam Scott said. "He has got the runs on the board for that.
"(But) he is far from running away with it. He has returned to No. 1 but that is just a number. It's not a foregone conclusion."
Three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson hopes to make a charge as well, having won earlier this year at Phoenix and taken the green jacket in 2004, 2006 and 2010.
"Even at times where he has not played his best, you know what he's capable of, and so you're always looking at his score," Mickelson said of Woods.
"You're always worried about him making that big run the way he has always done throughout his career, and now that he's doing it and winning tournaments in such a dominating fashion, it does have the feel of what we expect to see from Tiger."