Green jacket up for grabs

2012-04-04 11:47

Augusta - Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy have brought extra attention from beyond the typical golf fans to the 76th Masters, but they are far from the only players with a chance to win the green jacket.

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There's an intensity at Augusta National Golf Club this week far beyond the heat that led flower blooms to fall early, diminishing the course's natural beauty but removing none of the stern test offered by the year's first Major.

"With the top players winning big events and Tiger coming back into form, it has whipped up a bit of a frenzy," world No 3 Lee Westwood said.

Tension comes from an on-form field of top contenders that also includes world No 1 Luke Donald, England's Westwood, three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson, defending champion Charl Schwartzel and a host of others.

"A lot of people can win this week," McIlroy said. "There's a lot of great people in this field and a lot of people with great chances to win. I'm just looking forward to hopefully getting in contention and giving myself a chance."

Westwood, a top-three finisher in five of the past 10 majors still seeking his first major title at 38, says nearly one-third of the field of 96 have a solid chance to capture the title.

"You can narrow it down to 30 people probably whose games are suited," he said. "Rory has never won here. Tiger has not won here since 2005. So I think everybody would have to be naive to think it was a two-horse race.

"I think Phil might have a little bit of something to say about that. Luke might. I might."

Woods, a 14-time major winner chasing the all-time record of 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, snapped a 2 1/2-year PGA win drought two weeks ago at Bay Hill but has not won a major title since the 2008 US Open.

"It's great for the game of golf that Tiger is back," McIlroy said. "He creates excitement that no one else in the game can.

"A lot of people want to see him make history and it looks like he's back on track to maybe going and doing that."

World No. 2 McIlroy led the first three rounds last year and at the 10th tee on Sunday before a nightmare finish, only to bounce back and win the US Open at Congressional two months later for his first major title.

But the 22-year-old Northern Irishman has a score to settle with Augusta National.

"Obviously there are memories that come back and memories you don't probably want," McIlroy said. "It wasn't the end of the world. It's only golf. It's not like anyone died out there. It's fine. I got all of that out of the way.

"Just looking forward to this week, trying to put myself in contention to win this thing. I'm coming back a much more experienced player and feel like a much better player than the player who came here last year."

Woods missed last year's US Open because of left knee and Achilles tendon injuries suffered at last year's Masters, but he gained respect for McIlroy watching him win in overwhelming fashion.

"He can move the ball out there. I used to move it like that back in yesteryear," Woods said.

"The way he plays, and the way he handles himself on the course, how competitive he is, he's very feisty. It's what you have to be. He has all the makings of being a great champion for a long period of time."

South Africa's Schwartzel, who birdied the last four holes to win the 2011 Masters in unprecedented fashion, likes his chances of winning again.

"If I play my best I can compete with anyone," he said. "I almost expect to win. I feel like, 'If I've done it before why can't I do it again?' You have to be careful so your mind doesn't run away with you, really stay in the present.

"With so many guys playing so good it's going to come down to a tight finish again. This tournament has always had some electrifying finishes over the last nine holes and I don't see why this year is going to be any different."

Donald, the Englishman who won last year's US and European money titles in an unprecedented feat, takes no extra motivation in the "Tiger versus Rory" talk as he seeks his first major title.

"Tiger is always the guy that pushes the needle the most and obviously Rory gets a lot of attention now," Donald said. "It's something as pros we tend to expect. Everyone wants to make that rivalry.

"Those two garner the most attention right now. It's a little naive to say that they are the only two that have a chance to win around here."

The past 12 major championships have produced 12 different winners.

"There's a chance for a lot of people to win this week," Donald said. "I'm still a decent number in the bookies. I don't know if I've been written off yet."