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76th Masters Tournament Preview
By Jim Brighters, Senior Golf Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - This year's Masters, which tees off Thursday from Augusta National, may be the most-anticipated Masters in history.

Storylines, some of the biggest the sport has seen in decades, abound at Augusta National. They feature the biggest names in golf, and, now, in the entire athletic world.

The burning question since one fateful Thanksgiving night a few years back was. could Tiger Woods return to major championship form. There were good performances, especially at The Masters, but no victories.

There were no victories anywhere until December 2011. Granted, it was in an 18-player, unofficial event, the Chevron World Challenge, but Woods battled another former Masters champion, Zach Johnson, in a heated Sunday.

Woods came out on top, but, still, it wasn't enough. Woods said several times, since the event, which benefits his charitable organization, offered world ranking points, he treated it as a "real" win.

Contrary to what the PGA Tour felt, that's what Woods believed and fast- forward about four months.

Woods got his first official PGA Tour victory, his seventh title at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. The win, less than a month ago, instantly gave credence to the notion that Woods was once again a favorite for a fifth green jacket.

Augusta National is a course where Woods has obviously enjoyed a massive amount of success, not unlike Bay Hill, the host venue for the Arnold Palmer. In the deepest depths, with his mind occupied on divorce and a massive swing change, Woods still tied for fourth the last two years at The Masters.

Now, imagine what he can do with some momentum?

The swing change, always a process Woods said, has appeared to click. He won at Bay Hill in vintage Woods fashion - he built a small lead, played steady and watched his closest competitors crumble on Sunday.

Woods will head to Augusta as the favorite for major title No. 15. A month ago, few believed Woods would ever catch Jack Nicklaus' 18 major titles. April hits the calendar, and we want to see if Woods is truly back.

At 36, with an injury-riddled pair of wheels, Woods will always have a better than average chance at Augusta. It sets up perfectly for him. But if his days of winning majors are over, the heir apparent showed his face last year, and that 20-something's odyssey began 12 months ago at Augusta National.

Rory McIlroy dominated the 2011 Masters for three rounds. He became a world- class player capable of low scores, even in majors, but after 54 holes, the kid from Northern Ireland was four clear.

A shaky front nine still left McIlroy with a one-shot lead, but a disastrous drive at the 10th, which came to rest seemingly in someone's backyard, was a harbinger of worse things to come.

McIlroy posted an 80 on that fateful Sunday and fell into a tie for 15th.

What would happen to McIlroy after that disaster in the final round? What would he learn from the painful experience? How long would it take for him to rebound?

It only took until the next major.

McIlroy crushed the field in anticlimactic romp to victory at the U.S. Open at Congressional. That was the launching point to a run to the top of the world rankings, albeit a brief one.

McIlroy was No. 1 for just two weeks after he won this year's Transitions Championship. With his form, McIlroy is a clear choice at Augusta this year and there are zero questions about demons that might haunt him on the back nine in 2012.

A list of favorites for The Masters has to include Phil Mickelson. He's won the title three times, and with this being an even-numbered year, watch out. Mickelson's three green jackets came in 2004, 2006 and 2010.

His form is questionable, but when it's good, it's unreal.

At the Pebble Beach Invitational, and paired in the final round with Woods, Mickelson made every putt spanning the California coastline. A week later, Lefty lost a playoff at the Northern Trust Open, but every other tournament has been empty.

Mickelson had a good showing this past weekend with a tie for fourth in his Houston Open title defense.

With these three contenders, ranging from the young to old-ish, The Masters is set up for a wildly entertaining tournament.

Can it beat last year's final round? That's doubtful.

Charl Schwartzel became the first winner in tournament history to birdie the last four holes en route to victory.

No fewer than eight people in the last round had a share of the lead one year ago. Names like Woods, McIlroy, Luke Donald, Adam Scott and Geoff Ogilvy saw their names atop the leaderboard on Sunday in 2011, but it was Schwartzel who emerged victorious.

The South African showed the steady steel needed to win a major title.

Several guys fit that bill, like Donald, Lee Westwood, or maybe even last year's PGA Champion, Keegan Bradley. Bombers like Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson have great chances as well.

Or could it be a Masters rookie like Kyle Stanley who can be the first player to win his first trip since 1979?

It's hard to imagine, with their form and history, the winner would be anyone but Woods, McIlroy or Mickelson.

It just seems like this year's Masters is loaded with expectations. Generally, lofty anticipation like that never comes to fruition, but this year's Masters just feels different.

It feels epic.


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