AUGUSTA, GEORGIA —
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 No. 1 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-ribbon events.
Four-time champion Woods, meanwhile, decided only last week to compete at Augusta National after struggling badly in his two tournament starts this season. But he has looked relaxed during practice over the past three days.
"Everyone is just curious to see how he comes back," McIlroy said 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 No. 1, 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."
On Friday, he said his game was "finally ready to compete at this level, the highest level," said Woods. "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." He won his last Masters title in 2005.
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 U.S. Open in 2011, the PGA Championship in 2012 and 2014, and the British Open in 2014.
Variety of champions
McIlroy may be the pre-tournament favorite, but the last eight Masters tournaments have produced seven different champions, with reigning champion Bubba Watson the only repeat winner among them. He won his first green jacket in 2012.
"To win it three times would be remarkable," the American left-hander said of his bid to become the sixth triple champion at Augusta.
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 No. 2 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 are 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 buildups to any tournament ever."