Masters Preview: Can Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy Take Down Tiger?

"I feel very balanced," said the world number one. Should the rest of the field start playing for second place?

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JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

Tiger Woods of the US during a practice round at the 77th Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 9, 2013 in Augusta, Georgia.

The words uttered by Tiger Woods in the build up to this week’s Masters might make the rest of the field in Augusta feel a little less comfortable about their chances of slipping on the famous Green Jacket. Woods, 37, is bidding to win his 15th major, which would be his first since 2008, and fifth victory at the Masters, which he hasn’t won since 2005. One of the great storylines in golf is Woods attempting to top Jack Nicklaus’s record haul of 18 majors, and if Woods can justify his billing as the bookmakers favorite – he’s as low as 4 to 1 with some bookies, which seems to flatter him somewhat in a 93-man field – he may well be back on track.

As for those words, Woods said that “I feel very balanced,” going on to say that “I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game. I feel that I’ve improved and I’ve got more consistent, and hopefully I can continue it this week and the rest of the year.” Addressing the quest to pass Nicklaus, Woods noted that “We have very expansive careers and I feel like I’m basically right in the middle of mine. It took Jack a while to get to 18, all the way until he was 46 years old.”

(MORE: Tiger Woods Is Back To Number One. His Greatest Feat?)

But words need to be matched by actions, and Woods has certainly delivered on that front in 2013. He’s world number one thanks to recording victories at three out of four strokeplay events this year, and has six wins from his last 20 starts on the PGA Tour. His record at the Masters is impressive: Since winning it for the first time in 1997, he’s had 11 top 10 finishes. And apart from last year, where Woods could only manage a tie for 40th – his worst finish as a pro at Augusta – he’s come no worse than sixth since 2005.

And if Woods does put on the Green Jacket for a sixth time, it will be a far cry from his fall from grace on and off the golf course. His private-life scandal, which came to light over the Thanksgiving weekend of 2009, culminated in a divorce from Elin Nordegren. He slumped to 58th in the world rankings in 2011 and had well documented problems with his swing and injuries.

(PHOTOS: Brief History of the Tiger Woods Scandal)

But if not Woods this year then who might be in the frame? His new Nike stablemate, the Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy, is the only player to have won more than one major out of the last 17 played. He hasn’t been in top form since switching to Nike equipment, but shooting a final-round 66, and finishing second to Martin Laird at the Texas Open a few days ago, could bode well for the 23-year-old.

(MORE: Rory McIlroy Becomes Golf’s $250 Million Man)

The past three Masters champions might also fancy their chances. Last year’s winner, Bubba Watson, is aiming to become the first player to retain the Masters since Woods in 2002 but, like McIlroy, isn’t playing to his potential though a share of 14th at Bay Hill recently was better than some of his other performances. The South African Charl Schwartzel wasn’t out of the top three in six consecutive tournaments around the turn of the year, winning three of them (and don’t rule out his compatriot Louis Oosthuizen, who lost in a play-off to Watson at Augusta last year). And then there’s Phil Mickleson, who won his third Green Jacket in 2010. “Lefty”‘s record at the Masters is as impressive as anyone’s, with 14 top 10 finishes from the last 18 at Augusta. But backers beware: Mickleson likes to compete the week before a major but a change in the PGA schedule scuppered that plan and he didn’t enter the Texas Open because he thought the course was too “tight and windy.”

And so the scene is set and Woods arguably remains the man to beat. He’s even had time on his hands to give a lesson to 14-year-old Chinese teenager Guan Tianlang, who will become the youngest player in Masters history. “Each time I play with him I feel a lot better and give myself some confidence and it’s very good,” Guan said. “He told me a lot. We really enjoyed it on the golf course.” But when Guan and 91 other players tee off on Thursday, they might end up learning something else: Tiger Woods is back.

MORE: Tiger Woods is Back to His Old Form, With a Little Help From His Opponents

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