Tiger Woods is favourite to collect a fifth Green Jacket and win his first major title since 2008 when the 77th Masters begins at Augusta on Thursday.
Woods, the 14-time major champion, is back at world number one after scandal, injury and swing changes derailed his career, and is showing the sort of form that could reignite his quest to pass Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major titles.
Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, who Woods usurped at the top of the rankings, seems to have put an early-season blip behind him following an equipment switch and is looking to add a first Masters to his two previous majors.
Britain has been without a winner since Nick Faldo took his third Masters in 1996, but Englishmen Justin Rose, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter are high in the rankings and have all played well at the revered Augusta venue.
The Masters, the year’s first major and youngest of the big four tournaments in golf, has become one of the most iconic events in sport since its inception in 1934.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Nicklaus’s first of a record six Masters wins, while Chinese 14-year-old Tianlang Guan will become the youngest ever competitor after winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship.
He has been the talk of Augusta after playing practice rounds with Woods and two-time champion Ben Crenshaw, who he will again partner on Thursday and Friday.
“I think all of us are asking ourselves, ‘What were we doing at 14?’,” said Crenshaw, 61, who won the Masters in 1984 and 1995. “You can tell he breathes golf. It was fascinating to see him play.”
Woods, 37, has dominated the game since winning his first Masters title in 1997 at the age of 21, but his game deteriorated after scandal in 2009. Four knee operations and other injuries have also affected his career and he dropped to 58th in the world in November 2011 while undergoing swing changes with new coach Sean Foley.
However, he has won three of his four strokeplay events this season and six in his last 20 and says he is confident he will soon add to his major haul.
“It took Jack a while to get to 18, all the way until he was 46 years old,” said Woods. “So there’s plenty of opportunities for me.”
The match-up that many golf fans would like to see is Woods going head-to-head with McIlroy on Sunday afternoon. The 23-year-old, who idolised Woods as a child, struggled earlier this season after a signing a £78m deal to switch club manufacturers. He then added to his woes by walking off the course during the Honda Classic in March, citing toothache as an excuse before later apologising.
McIlroy, however, was second behind Scot Martin Laird in Texas last week and says he is now “100% comfortable” with his game. He also insists he has banished the demons after his infamous collapse during the final round in 2011, when he squandered a four-shot lead going into the last day.
“Would anything less than a win be a disappointment this week?” he said. “Yes, it would be. The ultimate goal is getting one of those Green Jackets.”
Away from the Woods-McIlroy axis, American left-hander Phil Mickelson is a course specialist and is chasing a fourth Green Jacket after wins in 2004, 2006 and 2010.
A host of other Americans, such as Brandt Snedeker, Keegan Bradley, Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson, are considered contenders to follow in the footsteps of countryman Bubba Watson, who conjured a stunning shot out of the trees to beat South African Louis Oosthuizen in a play-off last year for his first major title.
Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, and fellow South African Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters winner, are also on many people’s shortlists along with Australian Adam Scott, who blew a four-shot lead with four holes to play at the Open at Royal Lytham last year.
“I’d say there are about 20 players with a very serious chance of winning,” said BBC golf commentator Peter Alliss.
“Then there are another 20 who could win if things just go their way and they have a bit of luck.”
Scotland’s Sandy Lyle, who became the first Briton to win the Masters in 1988, plays in the first group due out at 13:00 BST (08:00 local time) on Thursday.
Woods will play alongside world number four Donald and American Scott Piercy at 15:45, one group ahead of Watson, Poulter and US amateur Steven Fox.
McIlroy will tee off in the penultimate group at 18:41 with Bradley and Sweden’s Frederik Jacobson.
Nicklaus, 73, four-time winner Arnold Palmer, 83, and three-time champion Gary Player, 77, will hit the ceremonial opening drives to get the 2013 Masters under way.