AUGUSTA, Ga. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Two players seemingly headed in opposite directions are hogging all the headlines at this year’s Masters.
Rory McIlroy is trying to complete the career Grand Slam.
Tiger Woods is looking to play 72 holes in a regular PGA Tour event for only the second time in the past year.
But let’s not forget the other potential contenders, a lengthy list led by defending champion Bubba Watson.
“I feel like I have a shot around here,” said Watson, who has won two of the past three Masters and can become only the fourth player to win back-to-back titles.
“It doesn’t mean I’m going to do it. But I’m going to try to compete at a high level, and hopefully on Sunday we have that chance on the back nine.”
The Masters began shortly after sunrise Thursday with ceremonial tee shots by Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Fans and even some Green Jacket hopefuls came out to watch the three legends get the tournament off and running.
“It shows they have respect for the game,” Player said.
McIlroy is the clear favorite, having won the last two majors of 2014 (the British Open and the PGA Championship) to leave the Masters as the only big title missing from his resume.
At age 25, he has a shot at joining Nicklaus, Woods, Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen in the exclusive club.
“Golf is a very fickle game,” McIlroy said. “You don’t take anything for granted.”
If he needs proof of that, all McIlroy has to do is remember what happened at this very place four years ago. He had a four-shot lead in the Masters, ready to be crowned the next big thing in golf, when he shot 80 in the final round.
McIlroy handled the collapse with remarkable poise, insisting he would learn from his mistakes. Two months later, he set scoring records while winning the U.S. Open at Congressional for his first major title.
“A lot of that win has to do with what happened at Augusta,” he said.
While the expectations are higher than ever for McIlroy, they’ve never been lower for Woods. He is competing for the first time since Feb. 5, when he walked off the course at Torrey Pines to work on a game that made him look more like a weekend duffer than a 14-time major champion.
Woods has shown much improvement in three days of practice, including nine holes he played Wednesday with Ben Crenshaw and Jordan Spieth.
Then again, no one — not even Woods — is sure how he’ll play when the shots actually count.
“I’m excited to be back, to be back playing at this level,” he said. “I feel like my game is finally ready to compete at this level, the highest level.”
Even at different ends of the spectrum, McIlroy and Woods have dominated the talk so much this week that a large group of contenders has largely been ignored.
There’s Watson, trying to join Nicklaus, Woods and Nick Faldo as the only Masters champions to defend their titles. There’s Adam Scott, back to the long putter he used to win in 2013.
There’s Spieth, who might be the hottest player on the PGA Tour, having won, finished second, and lost in a playoff in his past three starts.
There’s Jimmy Walker, the only player with two tour wins this season. There’s Phil Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion and runner-up to McIlroy at Valhalla in the PGA.
Not to mention, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day, all showing signs of breaking through for their first major titles.
A year ago, Spieth was on the verge of becoming the youngest Masters champion at age 20 when he had a two-shot lead with 11 holes to play. Two bogeys put him behind going into the back nine, and Watson pulled away for the victory.
“Last year,” Spieth said, “I had no expectations, didn’t know what it was going to be like, had never played the tournament before. This year, I come in maybe expecting to play well on a course I feel very comfortable on. I feel like it suits my game nicely, and I also feel like I’ve been playing well.”
If history is a guide, one player can already be ruled out.
Kevin Streelman won the Par 3 Contest on Wednesday, beating Camilo Villegas in a playoff. No player has ever taken the green jacket after capturing the just-for-fun exhibition, which began in 1960.
“I feel great,” Streelman said. “I’ve done a lot of preparation. Done all I can do. Now I’ve just got to go out and have fun and play.”
In a place that cherishes its history, Nicklaus gave the patrons a thrill by holing out at No. 4 for one of the five aces in the Par 3 Contest. Villegas had two of them.
“I actually hit two more shots that hit right around the edge of the hole, had a chance to go in,” the 75-year-old Nicklaus said. “I didn’t finish up very well, but we had a lot of fun.”
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