Woods his old, intimidating self

Tiger Woods hits a tee shot on the 17th hole during a practice round at the Augusta National Golf...

Tiger Woods hits a tee shot on the 17th hole during a practice round at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., April 4, 2012. (BRIAN SNYDER/Reuters)

JON McCARTHY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:00 PM ET

AUGUSTA, GA. - The azaleas are missing and the course is soaked.

It doesn’t matter.

The most anticipated Masters in years has arrived. While the best stage in golf is being furiously cleaned up and prepped, the stars of the show are waiting in the wings fresh and ready to go.

The three biggest names in golf are in top form. Apologies to the rest of the field, but when looking for a winner it’s impossible not to have your eyes stop on one of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson or Rory McIlroy.

Woods says he hasn’t hit the ball this well in years and is coming off a five-shot victory at Bay Hill.

Mickelson played well last week in Houston and is excited to continue his love affair with Augusta National.

McIlroy hasn’t teed it up in three weeks but his swing gives the impression he could roll out of bed, land on the first tee and contend in any major.

The question then is how to narrow it down further; how to pick one golfer.

In the old days, it was more simple. There were Tiger guys and there were Phil guys.

Phil guys were generally left tossing the remote while Tiger guys cross-checked the record book.

Recently the needle has swung in Mickelson’s favour.

Since Woods’ last Masters victory Mickelson has won twice at Augusta. A victory this week and Mickelson will match Woods with four green jackets.

While these two battled for their place in the history books, McIlroy was hopping around the globe collecting trophies and fans.

With his collapse at last year’s Masters and ensuing domination at the U.S. Open, the effervescent McIlroy has accomplished one of the rarest feats in the history of golf. He is an international golfer that has been totally embraced by the American golf fans.

Foreign players are supposed to be foils not heroes but at the Honda Classic earlier this year fans were shouting “Ro-ry! Ro-ry! Ro-ry!” as he marched toward victory. Even more unbelievably, Woods was the clubhouse leader at the time.

But none of this helps pick a winner this week. It almost seems a dead heat between the favourites.

But it isn’t.

A funny thing happened two weeks ago at Bay Hill when Woods won. Graeme McDowell, who was paired with Tiger in the final group, shot a 74. Ian Poulter and Ernie Els, who were right there starting Sunday, shot 74 and 75 respectively.

A decade ago the leaderboard always seemed to do that when Tiger was wearing red and teeing off last.

But those days are supposed to be over. It’s been said over and over again that the mystique is gone. Players know he can be beat. Or at least that’s what they say.

Woods leads the PGA in scoring average. He leads the PGA in all-around ranking. There is every reason to think he will be in contention on Sunday and little reason to think the field is ready to deal with that.

Gary Player has seen everything there is to see in golf and warns fans not to have a short memory.

“When Tiger Woods is playing his best, there’s nobody better playing than Tiger Woods,” he said. “When he’s playing his best — we’ve got to be honest — it’s very easy.”

“Time makes one forget,” he added.


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