Who's afraid of Tiger Woods?

Tiger Woods is back on the prowl again - fitter, stronger and more determined that ever.

At least, that’s the message he sent to his potential rivals when he gave a trademark, combative press conference before his well-rewarded appearance in this week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

Whether he is secretly in agony or on top of the world, Woods will always try and project an aura of confidence and invincibility. But it remains to be seen if the current crop of young guns ahead of him in the world ranking these days will be as overawed by his presence as they once were.

Has he regained his aura? As Graeme McDowell said last year: “Until he starts winning again, he’s not going to get that back.”

Roll on 2012.

The 14-time major winner has been ‘drawn’ in Abu Dhabi with world No 1 Luke Donald - a player he once dismissed as a “plodder” - and world No 3 Rory McIlroy, the US Open champion, for the first two rounds in the desert.

Free from injury and determined to add to his haul of major wins, Woods suggested that he’s back to where he was between 1999 and 2002 when he captured seven of 11 majors he played.

“It’s been quite a few years since I’ve been physically fit,” Woods said. “So I’m looking forward to getting out there and then playing and give it a full season, which I haven’t done in a while, so I’m really looking forward to it. I don’t know, probably eight, 10, 12 years ago was the last time I felt fully fit.

“I had surgery in 2002. I had surgery in 2008. A couple other ones in there, too. It’s been a while. I played really well my last three events, so I’m really looking forward to this year, and continuing and building on what we have done towards the end of last year for sure.”

Having ended a two-year victory drought in his Chevron World Challenge shortly before Christmas, Woods is bullish about the year ahead. He’s got no idea what to expect but does know that he’s “really looking forward to it.”

He’s also aware that he faces a different challenge this time against young generation of players who do not bear Tiger scars on their backs - McIlroy, Martin Kaymer, Jason Day et al.

“The young guys are practising harder, training harder than ever,” he conceded last week, admitting that regaining his world No 1 ranking from his current postion of 25th in the world might not be so easy.

“The level of consistency I had a few years ago would see me climb back up the rankings quickly, but there are some pretty phenomenal golfers out there whom I really respect,” he said.

Woods respects McIlroy and made positives noises yesterday about Donald’s feat of winning both the European and US money lists last season.

But before heading out for a quick nine holes with McIlroy, he gave the distinct impression that he was laying down a marker yesterday, as if to say: Watch out. I’m back boys and I’m fully fit this time.

McIlroy, 22, and Kaymer, 27, are two of the young guns he must beat this week and the Ulster star will relish the challenge.

“If I was to come up against Tiger on a Sunday it would be something to look forward to,” McIlroy said in Dubai at the end of last year.  “Not many players of my generation have experienced it yet, and it would be great to have the opportunity to do it.”

McIlroy made a few waves last season when he gave what he thought was an straightforward interview and saw it published as a first person piece under his by-line, insisting that Woods had become “an ordinary golfer.”

It was seen as disrespectful to Woods and McIlroy reacted on Twitter: “Hate that the media thinks I’m taking jabs at tiger all the time! Best that’s ever lived, EVER! Just not playing his best at the minute. If he plays his best we’re all screwed! LOL hard to dodge the tiger questions when u get 10 every interview you do!!!”

McIlroy was just being honest about Woods in the Sports Illustrated piece in question and merely tried to point out that he never played with Tiger in his prime and that the 2010 version was a poor imitation of the real thing:

“I wasn’t playing against Tiger Woods when he had that aura. I was watching on TV! I remember getting nervous when I first met him. I was 15. There was a presence about him. There still is to some extent, but when you’re on the golf course you simply block it out. But Tiger is not playing as well as he was even a couple of years ago, never mind going back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when he was at his best.

“I’m not sure we are going to see him dominate again the way he did. He never seemed like he would make a mistake. It’s not that he’s playing badly. He’s simply playing badly by Tiger’s standards. He’s playing like an ordinary golfer. People expect more of him because of what he has achieved.”

McIlroy has since become a major winner and Woods does not appear to have taken his comments to heart. In fact, he was massively impressed by McIlroy’s eight-shot US Open win, insisting: “That was very impressive playing. To do that at a US Open, to be that aggressive the entire time, that was cool to watch.”

Asked about his potential rivalry with the current crop of young guns this year, Woods hoped that it would be as exciting as the days of the Big Five. He broke their hearts more often than not.

He told Sky Sports: “I think we are all excited. It’s always nice to have everyone playing well at the same time. Obviously I’ve had stretches where it was Vijay, Phil, myself, Ernie, Goose, Furyk - when we were all playing well at the same time. Now it is a different generation of guys and we are all playing well at the same time. So it is very exciting.”

Whatever about McIlroy or Kaymer’s views on Woods, McDowell felt last year that the American was no longer the intimidating force he once was.

Having beaten him in sudden death in the Chevron World Challenge at the end of 2010, the Portrush man had first hand experience to draw on when asked about the Woods aura.

Tellingly, McDowell felt that Woods’ famous Sunday red shirt had become just that - a red shirt and nothing more.

“That’s his trademark,” McDowell said in Akron in August. “Really, I think that’s all it is right now. What it means to him is obviously a different thing. What it means to the rest of us … it’s not really something to be intimidated by anymore.”

McDowell did add that Woods could regain his aura by winning again and that’s the test that faces him this week.

“Mystique is not something that’s measurable,” McDowell said. “It’s when you stand on the tee box with him and you get the feeling you’re in the presence of greatness. When someone shows themselves as flawed and human … what Tiger was doing all for years and years was superhuman. He was imposing himself on players just by being there.”

The question remains: Is Tiger is ready to roar again? Abu Dhabi could provide some clues.