(Adds dropped word in first bullet)
* Former world number one ends two month layoff
* Four-times Augusta winner set for Thursday return
By Andrew Both
April 3(Reuters) - Tiger Woods ended weeks of speculation on Friday when he announced he will play in next week’s Masters golf tournament at Augusta National.
Hobbled by back problems and poor play this year, Woods made the decision to go for his 15th major title after his second visit of the week to the famed Georgia course.
The Masters, the first major of the year, begins on Thursday and will end a two-month absence from tournament play for the former world number one.
“I‘m playing in the Masters,” said Woods on his website, marking his return to the tournament he has won four times.
“It’s obviously very important to me and I want to be there. I’ve worked a lot on my game and I‘m looking forward to competing,” said Woods, who missed last year’s event after being advised by doctors to have a microdiscectomy to repair a pinched nerve in his back.
The lure of Augusta has obviously proved irresistible to the 39-year-old, who has been plagued by a woeful short game over recent months.
“I am excited to get to Augusta and I appreciate everyone’s support,” he said.
Woods, who is still adapting to the fifth swing change of his career, this time with new consultant Chris Como, has dropped to 104th in the world rankings and bookmakers consider him a longshot to win the Masters.
Centrebet and Ladbrokes both list him at 40/1.
World number one Rory McIlroy is the tournament favorite.
Former player Notah Begay said Woods was “completely undecided” until the last couple of days about whether to play, as he continued to evaluate his game.
“One of the first discussions we had was not to come back until he felt he was ready and could compete,” Begay, a confidant of Woods, said on Golf Channel.
“So obviously he feels like his game and all the work is really starting to show some dividends. I know he’s not just there to play. He’s there to compete.”
Another former player, Curt Byrum, said it would quickly become obvious at the Masters whether Woods has solved his short game issued.
“We’re going to find out really quickly if he’s solved his pitching and chipping problems because there’s not a tougher place on the planet to chip and pitch the ball than Augusta National,” Byrum said.
Woods has not played in any tournament since withdrawing with tightness in his back during the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open near San Diego on Feb 5.
Woods later announced he would take a break from competition until he felt his game was ready to compete at the highest level.
He has not won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open and his most recent Masters victory came 10 years ago, though he has contended several times since, including just two years ago, when he finished only four strokes off the pace after incurring a two-shot penalty for a rules violation.
Woods struggled badly in his first two events this year.
He posted the highest score of his professional career, a shocking 11-over-par 82 to miss the cut at the Phoenix Open in January.
A pathetic short game made him look more like a struggling amateur than the greatest player of his generation, prompting some experts to opine that he had the “chipping yips”.
He did not look much better the following week at Torrey Pines, where he was two over par after 11 holes when he pulled out, his third withdrawal in his last nine tournaments.
Additional reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes. Editing by Gene Cherry