AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - This week’s Masters is one of the most intriguing ever with the prospect of a career grand slam for Rory McIlroy and uncertainty over the state of Tiger Woods’ game heading a plethora of compelling storylines.
Northern Irish world number one McIlroy is gunning for his third consecutive victory in a major, and a first green jacket at the spiritual home of the American game, to complete a full set of all four of golf’s blue riband events.
Four-times champion Woods, meanwhile, only decided last week to compete at Augusta National after struggling badly in his two tournament starts this season, but has looked a very different and relaxed player during practice over the past three days.
“Everyone is just curious to see how he comes back,” McIlroy said earlier this week about Woods’ return to competition after a two-month absence from the PGA Tour while retooling his swing.
“I don’t think you should ever underestimate him. He’s done things on the golf course that are pretty special. As a golf fan in general, I‘m interested to see how he does.”
Woods posted the highest score of his professional career, an 11-over 82, to miss the cut at the Phoenix Open in January, and withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open the following week after 11 holes because of tightness in his back.
The former world number one, who claimed the most recent of his 14 major titles at the 2008 U.S. Open, said he would not return to competition until his game was “tournament-ready” and many pundits believe he is suffering from the chipping ‘yips’.
However, last Friday he finally announced his decision to play in this week’s Masters.
“I feel like my game is finally ready to compete at this level, the highest level,” said Woods, who won the most recent of his four green jackets at Augusta National 10 years ago.
“There’s no other tournament in the world like this, and to come back to a place that I’ve had so many great memories at and so many great times in my life, it’s always special.”
McIlroy, who tied for eighth at last year’s Masters, arrives at Augusta National looking to become the seventh career grand slam winner following Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen.
“I’ve got a chance to do something very few players in this game have done before so that adds a little bit of spice to it,” said the 25-year-old, who won the 2011 U.S. Open, the PGA Championship (in 2012 and 2014) and the British Open (2014).
Though McIlroy is the pre-tournament favorite, the possibilities are seemingly endless when it comes to likely winners after Sunday’s final round.
The last eight editions have produced seven different champions, with reigning champion Bubba Watson the only ‘repeat’ winner after earning his first green jacket in 2012.
“To win it three times would be remarkable,” the American left-hander said of his bid to join the likes of Sam Snead, Gary Player and Phil Mickelson by becoming the sixth triple champion at Augusta.
“I never thought I would win it twice, so I can’t believe that we are talking about it ... three times. Pretty wild and pretty crazy stuff.”
Other contenders include Australia’s Adam Scott, the 2013 champion who has reverted to his long putter to cope with Augusta’s notoriously tricky greens, and Americans Jordan Spieth and Jimmy Walker, who have been in red-hot form in recent weeks.
Swedish world number two Henrik Stenson heads the European challenge with players from that continent bidding this week to end a 15-year title drought at the Masters.
”There’s a lot of guys who would rightly be in the real conversation -- Rory, Dustin (Johnson), Jordan, Adam, Jason (Day) and Phil (Mickelson),’ said Australia’s Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion.
“Bubba is always one of the clear favorites here. And if Tiger plays like he can, he’s going to be one of the favorites. That adds intrigue to the story, too. This has to be one of the best build-ups to any tournament ever.”
Editing by Frank Pingue