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Mickelson Favored as 75th Masters Tees Off

Phil Mickelson hits out of the rough on the ninth hole during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament, in Augusta, Georgia, April 6, 2011

American golfer Phil Mickelson returns to defend his title when the 75th Masters tees off Thursday at legendary Augusta National in Georgia. He will be competing against a field of the greatest golfers from around the globe, with the world's top ranking and a major title hinging on the outcome.

Despite the presence of top-ranked German Martin Kaymer, world No. 2 Lee Westwood of England and his old nemesis, Tiger Woods of the United States - for the first time, Mickelson is considered the favorite to win the prestigious event.

Mickelson will be bidding for his fourth Masters title at Augusta National. Though he has never been ranked No. 1 in the world, Mickelson is ranked ahead of Tiger for the first time since Woods won the first of his four Masters titles in 1997.

He moved from sixth up to third after winning the Houston Open last Sunday, while Woods fell from fifth to seventh.

Mickelson said he is anxious to begin defense of his Masters title. "I love it! I mean I have such a passion for this game. When I come back to Augusta National I remember how much I loved it as a kid. [I] Dreamt of playing the tour, dreamt of playing in the Masters and winning this tournament and being a part of it."

The Augusta National course has undergone a number of changes over the years to make it more challenging to the so-called "long hitters," who drive the ball farthest off the tee. But Mickelson said short game specialists [putting and chipping] also can win the tournament.

"Anybody, whether you're long or short... if your short game is sharp, I think you have a good chance. You don't have to be a big hitter to win here. You have to play away from your weaknesses and to your strengths. And so if you are not the longest hitter, you have to play to your strength, which needs to be wedge play and take advantage of the par-5s. If your short game is not sharp, you really need to strike it [the ball] exceptionally well."

At one time, Woods was considered one of the longest hitters in the game. He said, though, he has been working hard on a new swing and his short game with coach Sean Foley.

"It's progressing. I've made a few changes with it technique-wise," said Woods. "I've spent a lot of time here chipping and putting and working on it. So I'm feeling very comfortable and looking forward to getting out there."

Woods, who finished fourth at the Masters last year, has not won a tournament since shortly before news of his sex scandal broke in November of 2009. But he said that is all in the past.

"Last year was last year, you know, this year is this year, and I have the same opportunity as everybody else. My main focus is to get ready and be prepared, and come the first tee shot, be all cylinders go," he said.

In addition to Mickelson, Westwood, Kaymer and Woods, other top contenders for the green jacket - awarded to the winner of The Masters - include fourth-ranked Luke Donald of England and reigning U.S. Open Champion and world number-five Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland.