Masters wears open look

As the first of the season’s four Major championships, the Masters has always been the most keenly anticipated, a veritable golfing ‘rite of spring’ that brings together the game’s leading players.
 
This year, that sense of expectation is especially heightened with the list of likely winners deeper than ever and multiple champion Tiger Woods a notable absentee for the first time in his career after having surgery to repair a pinched nerve in his back.
 
Fellow American Phil Mickelson, another perennial contender at Augusta National, is also facing injury concerns of his own, leaving golf fans to expect even more of the unexpected.
 
Woods, who has claimed the coveted Green Jacket four times, has struggled with back pain since last August and he withdrew from last month’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, his final tune-up event, to get ready for the Masters before that bid was aborted.
 
Mickelson has won three times at Augusta National, most recently in 2010, but his preparations for the year’s opening major were rocked when he pulled out of last week’s Texas Open during the third round with a pulled abdominal muscle. 

“My back's feeling great, my body's been feeling great. I felt as good as I have all year,” said the left-hander, whose decision to withdraw seemed purely precautionary. “My speed is back, I was hitting the ball hard, driving it great.”
 
Whether or not Mickelson is a significant factor, the possibilities are seemingly endless when it comes to likely winners after Sunday’s final round.
 
The last seven editions have produced seven different champions and golf's extraordinary depth of talent has been showcased on the 2013-14 PGA Tour where there have been 17 different winners from the 20 tournaments so far completed.
 
“Everybody that tees it up here is a great player,” said American Matt Kuchar, who was tied for the lead with nine holes remaining at the Texas Open before finishing two strokes behind the triumphant Steven Bowditch.
 
Australian Bowditch came into the event ranked 339th in the world but survived a windswept final round with a four-over-par 76 at the TPC San Antonio to clinch his first victory on the US circuit.
 
Short game wizardry and the ability to minimise three-putts are musts for any would-be Masters champion at an iconic venue renowned for its lightning-fast, heavily contoured greens.
 
The list of potential champions is a long one, as demonstrated by the ‘unlikely’ Masters victories of Canada’s Mike Weir in 200

Twice major winner Rory McIlroy will be eager to atone for his nightmarish final-round meltdown three years ago when he squandered a four-shot overnight lead with a closing 80.
 
The Northern Irishman will also be champing at the bit to prove that his struggles on and off the course for much of his 2013 campaign are now behind him, and his form so far this year has been encouraging.
 
McIlroy, 24, earned himself a timely boost with his victory at the Australian Open in December and this season he has been in title contention in five of the six strokeplay events he has entered.
 
Back-to-back Masters victories have been rare with only three players accomplishing the feat since the tournament was launched in 1934.

Jack Nicklaus was the first to do so in 1966, and he was followed by Nick Faldo, in 1990, and Woods, in 2002.
 
Defending champion Adam Scott of Australia will have a good opportunity next week to add his name to that illustrious company, having climbed to number two in the world rankings with a superb run of form late last year.
 

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