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77th Masters Tournament Preview

10:02 AM, Apr 4, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The trip down Magnolia Lane to Augusta National Golf Club marks the kick off of the first major championship of the season.

There are plenty of storylines surrounding the top two players in the world, as well as with several other players entering the 77th Masters.

Tiger Woods, a four-time champion, has ascended to the top of the world rankings thanks to three victories this year. Despite all of his success over the last 13 months, Woods is still looking for his first major championship since 2008.

Rory McIlroy lost his grip atop the world rankings with a slow start to the year. The Northern Irishman coughed up the Masters title with a horrid back nine two years ago.

McIlroy does have two major championships to his credit at the age of 23, but can he right the ship at Augusta?

Will either be in contention when the tournament hits the back nine on Sunday? Old timers will tell you that that's when the Masters really begins.

Woods has been in control on the back nine several times throughout his career. Last year wasn't one of them as he failed to break par in any round.

In 2011, Woods was in the mix along with several other golfers as the lead changed hands multiple times before Charl Schwartzel put his foot on the gas and closed with four consecutive birdies to grab the title.

When Woods tied for 40th last year, that marked the first time in eight years he finished outside the top six, and it was by far his worst finish at the Masters as a professional.

Having won at Torrey Pines, Doral and Bay Hill, Woods has reclaimed the top spot in the world rankings. He has won six of his last 16 PGA Tour starts. This is the best Woods has played since before his 2009 Thanksgiving car accident.

The fallout from that led to his divorce. As he was coming back from that, Woods started working with Sean Foley, while playing a limited schedule in 2010. Woods also missed a large chunk of the 2011 campaign, but now that he is healthy, his play is on the rise.

Woods hasn't won a major since beating Rocco Mediate in their epic 91-hole U.S. Open thriller. Woods did that with a broken leg. With his current form, many think this is the most important major in Woods' career.

Twice before, Woods had gone 10 straight majors without a win, but his current streak has reached 14 consecutive. If Woods ends that streak, he'll move within three of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championship titles.

That is the record Woods wants more than anything.

While Woods is playing as well as he has since 2009, McIlroy is playing that poorly. McIlroy has broken par in six of his 11 stroke-play rounds, but his tie for eighth at Doral was by far his best finish this year.

McIlroy was in control of the 2011 Masters, but blew up on the back nine and tumbled into a share of 15th place. As bad as he closed that week, that stands as his best finish at Augusta. He added the Texas Open to his schedule just to get more reps in.

There will be plenty of focus on those two players, but let's not forget the two main combatants last year -- Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen.

Watson's stellar shot from the trees helped him beat Oosthuizen on the second playoff hole. The left-hander has five top-20 finishes in six starts this year.

In 17 starts since winning last year's Masters, Watson has 13 top-25 finishes and four missed cuts. Winning this title last year was Watson's first major. However, he is looking for his first win since then.

Oosthuizen hasn't been as consistent as Watson since last year's Masters, but the South African has two worldwide wins and two second-place finishes in that span. He also has played 11 more events than Watson since their battle at Augusta.

The 2010 British Open champion carded the fourth double-eagle in event history last year, and that was the shot of the tournament until Watson's stellar wedge shot from the trees during the playoff.

Those are just four of the many players to watch heading into the year's first major championship. And we haven't even mentioned guys like three-time champion Phil Mickelson, Brandt Snedeker, Keegan Bradley or Ernie Els.

Mickelson has had a roller coaster-type season. Two average results followed by a top-five finish. He couldn't crack the top 35 in his first two starts in California, then won in Phoenix. After two more so-so finishes, he shared third at Doral.

In his last two starts, Mickelson missed the cut at Bay Hill, then shared 16th in Houston last week. If he continues his season-long trend, Mickelson will be right there in the final round.

Snedeker was as hot as anyone the first six weeks of the season. He posted four top-three finishes in that span, including his fifth PGA Tour win. However, Snedeker missed the cut in his last two starts. If he returns to his early season form, look for Snedeker to make it four top-20 finishes in his last five starts at Augusta.

This will be Bradley's second start at Augusta and he comes in playing well. The 2011 PGA Championship winner has four straight top-10 finishes this year, and has played the weekend in all five of his major championship starts.

Els returns to Augusta this year after missing last year's tournament. He had played 18 straight Masters tournaments before that. Though Els hasn't won the Masters, he did post five straight top-10s finishes from 2000-04. That stretch started and ended with runner-up finishes. The South African doesn't have a top-10 this year, but maybe the slight of missing last year's tournament will spur him on this week.

Along with all the big-name pros, there are six amateurs in the field. Headlining that group is 14-year-old Tianlang Guan. The China native is set to become the youngest competitor ever at the Masters.

Though it will be tough for an amateur to compete at the year's first major, there should be plenty of big names to keep us interested.

Late Sunday afternoon, when the leaders hit the back nine, and the roars get louder than they had been all week, that's when we'll find out who is playing their best golf.

The Sports Network

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