All eyes on McIlroy and Woods as the Masters gets underway
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) Three of golf's greatest players began the Masters with ceremonial tee shots.
Then the focus quickly shifted to a pair of players who'll be keeping score, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods.
Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player with 13 green jackets between them came out on a warm, sunny Thursday morning to give the tournament its traditional opening.
"Don't fan it," the 85-year-old Palmer jokingly told himself.
"I don't think he's kidding," the 75-year-old Nicklaus added with a chuckle. "He said exactly the same thing to me"
No problem there. All three champions launched drives that carried well down the fairway, with the longest shot delivered by the 79-year-old Player.
Nicklaus and Player are among five players to complete the career Grand Slam.
McIlroy is in position to join them, having already won, at age 25, the other three majors.
Woods, on the other hand, is looking to play 72 holes in a regular PGA Tour event for only the second time in the past year.
While McIlroy and Woods dominated the headlines coming into the Masters, 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."
McIlroy was 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. Woods, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen are the only other members of 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."
Watson is trying to join Nicklaus, Woods and Nick Faldo as the only Masters champions to defend their titles. Then there's Jordan Spieth, who had a shot at becoming the youngest Masters champion in his debut a year ago. Now 21, he might be the hottest player on the PGA Tour, having won, finished second, and lost in a playoff in his past three starts.
"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."
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