Rory McIlroy stands on the cusp of history, but the returning Tiger Woods is among those looking to prevent the world No. 1 from etching his name in the record books in one of the most eagerly awaited Masters of all time.
Northern Irishman McIlroy will become just the sixth player to achieve a career grand slam if he triumphs at Augusta this weekend — joining Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Gary Player.
An outstanding 2014 saw McIlroy win the British Open and the PGA Championship and he’s rightly the favorite to receive the famous green jacket from defending champion Bubba Watson on Sunday.
The 25-year-old McIlroy has talked in the build-up about how his collapse in the 2011 Masters has been the catalyst for his career.
The record books show that last year’s eighth-place finish was McIlroy’s best showing at Augusta, but four years ago he held a four-shot lead heading into Sunday’s play. However, he endured a nightmare final-round collapse and an error-strewn 80 saw his dreams go up in smoke.
It took a mere two months for McIlroy to bounce back as he won the first of his four majors at the U.S. Open that same year and the pressure is now on to complete his haul.
Ironically, Woods’ return from a self-imposed, two-month hiatus may have alleviated the pressure on McIlroy, because so much of the focus has been on Tiger’s status for Augusta.
The 14-time major champion has not played competitive golf since his withdrawal after 11 holes at the Farmers Insurance Open in February following a dramatic and well-publicized drop in form, while concerns about his persistent back injury have remained.
Woods, who now sits outside the world’s top 100, confirmed his participation last week and if he were to collect a fifth green jacket, it would represent arguably one of the greatest comebacks in golfing history given his fall from grace in recent times.
Key for Woods, who missed the 2014 Masters due to injury, will be to overcome a short game that has completely deteriorated as he tackles one of the most challenging courses in the game.
With so much of the attention stolen by McIlroy and Woods, there are plenty of players who have slipped under the radar.
That might suit defending champion Watson, who has won the tournament in two of the past three years. The American undoubtedly has the length off the tee and delicacy around the greens to join Nicklaus, Woods and Nick Faldo as the only men to have defended the Masters.
There will be a strong contingent from the United States aiming to shoot their way into Masters folklore.
Jordan Spieth has been touted as the man possibly best equipped to challenge McIlroy this weekend, borne out of an outstanding Masters debut in 2014.
The 21-year-old was runner-up to Watson a year ago and won the Valspar Championship in March. He also recorded a second-place finish at the Texas Open and lost the Houston Open in a playoff last weekend to J.B. Holmes.
Rickie Fowler, fifth at Augusta last season, is a man never far away at the majors. He had two runner-up finishes and a third-place finish in the other majors last season.
Patrick Reed is a four-time winner on the PGA Tour and has the confidence, guile and self-assured nature to challenge the leaderboard, while Dustin Johnson — one of the few players who can match McIlroy for distance off the tee — has returned from a self-imposed exile to deal with personal problems in fine form, including victory at the World Golf Championships.
At 44, Phil Mickelson represents the old guard and he has endured a tricky few months, but the prize of a fourth Masters victory could spark another run.
Away from the States, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson has proved his mettle with four top four finishes in majors over the past two seasons, but his best at Augusta came last year when he placed 14th.
Adam Scott, the 2013 champion, and fellow Australian Jason Day will also be among the favorites this weekend.