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Woods the man to beat at Augusta

As the focus of the sporting world once again shifts to Augusta National, Neil Johnston takes a look at the contenders for this year's Masters

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Tiger Woods is the tournament favourite. Image: Keith Allison via flickr Creative Commons.
Tiger Woods is the tournament favourite. Image: Keith Allison via flickr Creative Commons.

Tomorrow, the first major of the year will begin and it looks set to be an exciting four days. Will there be a dream shootout between McIlroy and Woods for the tournament, and the world No.1 spot, or will an outsider sneak in and take the green jacket? Here are some players that shouldn't be overlooked.

Tiger Woods is always the favourite but for the first time in years, this could be as accurate a prediction as ever. Three wins out of five starts this year mean Woods is leading the FedEx Cup and has taken back the World No.1 spot, a significant step in his return.

However he is also in form at the right time, winning two consecutive tournaments before taking a break before the Masters. His wins at the Arnold Palmer and the Cadillac World Golf Championship were both by two strokes so not a huge victory, but still enough to maintain dominance.

Some choose to focus over and over again on his swing, making comparisons to Woods of various years. Forget the over-technical analysis about his swing though, the main issue for the rest of the field is the return of his putting which was impeccable on his last outing. If his putting continues to improve then it might be back to the Woods of old, where anything from ten feet is more or less a gimme.

Recently The Wall Street Journal compared the form of Woods to that of the US economy. Perhaps McIlroy should be compared to the UK economy if this correlation works elsewhere - the world No.2 has been a slow mover this year, languishing at 30th in the FedEx Cup and until last week had only seen one top ten.

McIlroy has endured a tough year so far. Image: internetsense via flickr Creative Commons.
McIlroy has endured a tough year so far. Image: internetsense via flickr Creative Commons.

However last week was a vast improvement as he came second in the Valero Texas Open by two strokes. If he gets the hang of the Augusta greens and his form continues to improve then maybe he could make it two consecutive majors. The win at the PGA was perhaps a surprise, maybe he will pull off another one this week.

Phil Mickelson is of course another to watch out for, and again one of the favourites. He has been fairly consistent this season with one win at the Phoenix Open and a third place at the Cadillac WGC.

Last time he played he finished tied 16th so his form isn't spectacular, however it must not be forgotten that The Masters is his speciality, with three out of his four major victories taking place at Augusta.

In 2010 he took apart the rest of the field in the final round so he should never be ruled out as long as he is within a few shots of the lead after round three.

One who could arguably have more of a chance than Mickelson or McIlroy despite the odds is Charl Schwartzel. He has been playing well this season with a win and a second place finish on the European Tour and respectable performances in the WGCs.

Add to that two top ten finishes in the US a recent fourth place finish in Malaysia and he is looking quite good. He finished 22nd last week, but this is hardly bad form and with the experience from winning the tournament in 2011 he should certainly not be discounted. He has shown consistency on both tours and he probably won't be far from the top of the leaderboard come Sunday.

And finally time for a long shot. The UK's best hopes may lie with McIlroy, Rose, and Westwood, but spare a thought for Martin Laird.

The Scot has been struggling with his game all season but it looks like he may have finally found what he has been looking for. Last week he produced a superb nine-under par 63 to win the Texas Open, fending off McIlroy by two shots and qualifying for The Masters.

If Laird has found his game again he does have a real chance. However only six players have won the Masters after a PGA Tour victory the previous week. One of those though was his compatriot Sandy Lyle back in 1988. Coincidence or not? We will soon find out.

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