AUGUSTA, Ga. -- He danced to hip-hop music while working on his chipping, greeted Zach Johnson and Steve Stricker with warm hugs on the range and will play in the light-hearted, family-friendly Par-3 contest for the first time since 2004.

This is Tiger Woods on the brink of sporting extinction?

Woods returns to the stage at this week's Masters in a strange place -- trying to rediscover his game and show the world he's still Tiger Woods. He could achieve this by playing his way into contention, but he also could become the golf equivalent of Willie Mays with the Mets, a sad version of his once-spectacular self.

Amid this quest, Woods seemed uncommonly relaxed the past two days at Augusta National. He was more personable than usual during his news conference Tuesday, revealing his two kids will caddie for him in the Par-3 contest and joking about "rocking out" to his iPod on Monday.

Asked about this apparent looseness, Woods blandly replied, "I'm just enjoying competing again. I don't feel any different. I feel like I'm preparing to try and win the Masters."

No matter what he suggests, winning this Masters counts as an extreme longshot. Woods last played in a PGA Tour event on Feb. 5, when he withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego because of back pain. He also flubbed several simple chip shots, both at Torrey Pines and a week earlier at the Phoenix Open.

This led Woods, 39, to take a self-imposed sabbatical, sequestering himself at home in Florida to work on his game. He skipped last month's Arnold Palmer Invitational, one of his favorite tournaments, and announced on Friday that he would return to competition at the Masters.

Hall of Famer Gary Player, who won nine majors in his career, placed heavy significance on how Woods plays at Augusta National.

"I think this week has a great bearing on Tiger's future," Player said. "If he goes out there and hits the first chip right there in front of him, like he's been doing, it's serious. It would be a tragedy.

"So this is probably the most significant week of his career, in my opinion. If he can play well and restore his confidence, that would be wonderful. Golf needs Tiger."

Woods' troubles dragged him to No. 111 in this week's world ranking, his lowest point since late 1996. He hasn't won a major in nearly seven years or posted a top-20 finish in any tour event since September 2013.

And if Woods doesn't win this week, he will go 0-for-his-30s at Augusta National. He last won the Masters at age 29, and he turns 40 in December.

But he had more fundamental concerns the past two months, trying to figure out what had gone amiss with his game. Woods insisted he was caught between two swings, his old one with coach Sean Foley and his reshaped move under new "consultant" Chris Como.

Woods acknowledged he occasionally tossed a club in frustration, but he insisted he's ready to tackle the challenge of Augusta National.

"I worked my (tail) off," he said. "It came in flashes. I would have it dialed in for 10 minutes -- then I'd lose it for an hour and then I'd get it back. There were some frustrating moments, but I had to stick with it."

Woods' perpetual tinkering with his swing has drawn much criticism over the years, and Player joined the chorus Tuesday. As he stood under the giant oak tree behind the clubhouse, talking to a handful of reporters about Rory McIlroy, suddenly Player invoked Woods -- as a cautionary tale.

"I hope Rory doesn't make the mistake Tiger made," Player said. "After he won the U.S. Open by 15 shots (at Pebble Beach in 2000) -- if Tiger never had a lesson from that day onward, he would have won 22 majors minimum. To change coaches, and get paralysis by analysis, is fatal."

Woods is trying to stop his lingering skid by reviving old habits. He played practice rounds with good friend Mark O'Meara on Monday and Tuesday. O'Meara said Woods looked good around the greens and thinks his "motivation and desire is coming back."

They will play Wednesday's Par-3 contest together, with Woods' daughter Sam (age 7) and son Charlie (6) along for the ride. Woods traced his renewed interest in the Par-3 event to his first Masters victory in 1997, not long after his dad, Earl, nearly died.

"To now come full circle and have my kids out there with me, that's special," he said.

Ron Kroichick is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @ronkroichick


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