Tiger Woods today will play in his 15th Masters, in a field with teenagers who were toddlers when he first came to Augusta -- one of whom, Rory McIlroy, counts Woods' record-setting win in 1997 as his first Masters memory.

Tiger the Terror is becoming Eldrick the Elder as he approaches athletic middle age. He is 33, with two kids and a reconstructed knee. He is much stronger today than he was when he won his first Masters, in 1997, yet he doesn't dominate with distance as he once did.

He has lost his father -- the man who taught him the game and gave him a putting lesson before the '97 tournament. Twice, already, he has rebuilt his swing, risking the most promising athletic career of our generation in a finicky pursuit of perfection. "Golf has evolved, in my life," he said.

Neither the birth of his second child nor a winter of knee rehabilitation has diminished his aura, though. In a week featuring dramatic stories -- Padraig Harrington's attempt to win a third consecutive major; Trevor Immelman defending his title during mentor Gary Player's last Masters; Greg Norman returning to the scene of his greatest collapses -- none matches Tiger playing in his first major since last year's U.S. Open.

"He is the top dog and he deserves the attention," Harrington said. "He's coming back from injury. It's a fantastic story, and it's good to be told."

At the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines last summer, Woods won while playing on a left knee that would require reconstructive surgery. He would swing, begin to watch the flight of the ball, then recoil in pain, perhaps learning how his opponents have always felt while watching his shots.

18th hole still Tiger territory

If there were questions about his ability to reconstitute his game following surgery, they were answered two Sundays ago, when he stormed back to beat Sean O'Hair with a long, dramatic birdie putt on the 18th green.

Geoff Ogilvy was asked who the best clutch putter in history is. "Tiger," he said. "He hasn't missed one yet. I mean, he will. Or, maybe he will. Who knows? But he makes that putt at Bay Hill, and everyone is impressed but nobody is surprised. And I say that because I've spent the last 10 years watching him make clutch putts, whether I was there or it was on TV.

"I didn't get to do with that with Jack [Nicklaus]. I guess Bob Jones was a fair clutch putter, too. Anyone who makes that putt the last hole at Torrey Pines last year gets my vote."

Norman competed with Nicklaus, and so offered a more detailed putting comparison when asked who ranks as the game's best clutch putter. "I would say from 6 feet and 7 feet in, it would be a tie between Nicklaus and Woods," Norman said. "I would say outside of 9 feet, it would be Woods, no question. He makes more 9-plus, 10-, 15-, 20-, 18-footers all day long at the crucial time. It doesn't matter whether it's for an eagle or for the win or for a double bogey. It seems like he gets the ball in the hole, and I haven't seen anybody like that.

"Every top player has always been a great putter inside 6 feet. But there's been very few players that just absolutely wipe you off the face of the planet with the way he putts outside 9 feet."

This is a new stage of Woods' career, a stage in which he elicits awe from elders, peers and possible successors, including:

Ryo Ishikawa, the 17-year-old from Japan: "When I grew up, of course, I saw Tiger Woods and wanted to be like him. Now I know I can't be him."

Masters chairman Billy Payne: "He is a man who decides the outcome and then he undertakes a strategy. The rest of us adopt strategies hoping to get to an outcome. ...

"I can't wait. I've never been on the golf course to watch any golf in 11 years ... but I think I'm going to go watch him play a few holes."

Anthony Kim, the 23-year-old rising star: "When Tiger came out here, I think I was 9, 10 years old, and I just watched him. I mean, I'll watch Phil, and I'll watch Vijay, but Tiger was the guy that made golf cool. When he got out here, all I cared about was his attitude and what he said, and how he got that good. He didn't come to a golf tournament not thinking he could win."

Do you expect to win? -- 'Always'

Woods is typically matter-of-fact about his chances this week. A year ago, he said winning a grand slam was a possibility, because he has won all four majors consecutively, although not in the same year.

This week, he was asked if he could have the same expectations when returning from knee surgery. "Well, I know I can do it," he said. "I've done it. It's hard for me to sit here and tell you that it can't be done, because I've done it before.

"It's just a matter of winning the right four at the right time. So, hopefully it will start this week for me."

His most revealing answers, though, might have been his shortest.

You're the old man who gives the young players advice now? "Yeah," he said. "Isn't that amazing?"

What's the biggest question about your game, playing in your first major since the surgery? "How the golf course is going to be playing," he said.

That's all? "Mmm-hmmm."

Do you expect to win? "Always."

That's it? Woods looked at the questioner, understanding he was hoping for a more elaborate, soul-searching answer, smiled and said, "Sorry."

Woods has won four Masters and 14 majors. Nicklaus holds the record of 18 major victories. "I would never have foreseen myself winning this many championships this soon," Woods said. "But I'm not going to say it's a bad thing, either."

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. •