The 2013 Masters Tournament kicks off professional golf's major championship season on Thursday, and four-time green jacket winner Tiger Woods is the odds-on favorite to take home the top prize yet again.
However, there are plenty of world-class competitors in the field that will give the No. 1 player in the world a serious run in his bid for major No. 15, including past champions at Augusta, others who have won elsewhere on golf's biggest stages and one golfer whose time may finally be arriving to win his maiden major.
Let's take a closer look at Woods' chances in the context of the outstanding start he's had to the season, as well as his recent history at this event. That will be followed by a breakdown of the top five contenders that have the best chance at challenging the living legend.
Note: All statistics, unless otherwise indicated, are courtesy of PGATOUR.com.
Victory has been elusive for Woods at Augusta since his unforgettable triumph in 2005 in a playoff with Chris DiMarco, which was highlighted by one of the greatest chip shots in golf history at the par-three 16th hole.
There is reason to believe that Woods will get the job done this time around, though, based on the phenomenal putting that has driven him to two consecutive victories on the PGA Tour.
Woods' dominance on the par-fives is beginning to resurface, and his tendency to hole round-saving putts has certainly returned. Having said that, Woods has had difficulty closing out tournaments, ranking 118th in final-round scoring average.
Considering the volatility that tends to occur atop the leaderboard on the back nine on Masters Sunday, that is a trend Woods will have to reverse if he wants to capture a fifth title.
Steve Stricker is considered a good friend to Woods, and the putting lesson he gave is what Woods has credited with his vast improvement on the greens. Stricker expressed to the New York Times' Karen Crouse that Woods seems generally in a better state of mind these days since the infidelity scandal has blown over:
I don’t really know too much about his personal life, but it just seems like he’s happier...whether that means his golf game or his personal life are in better order or all of the above. Yeah, it just seems like I think he’s got some confidence going in both areas, you know, and he’s playing well and putting well and feeling good about everything.
For whatever reason, Woods is having trouble ultimately getting it done at the Masters lately. Six consecutive finishes in the top-six didn't result in any more victories, and then he struggled to a tie for 40th in 2012.
Having said that, it would be surprising to see Woods not seriously threaten to win.
Even casual golf fans remember McIlroy's epic collapse in 2011, when he began the final day with a four-shot lead before sinking with an eight-over round of 80.
McIlroy wasn't a factor last year after a promising start through 36 holes, so it will be interesting how he handles Amen Corner should he be in contention next Sunday.
The 23-year-old Northern Irishman has struggled mightily for the most part in 2013 since switching over to Nike. However, his decision to play the Valero Texas Open this week has resulted in a welcome return to form, as he led the field through three rounds in greens in regulation.
Putting is still a bit of an issue at the moment for McIlroy, but the competitive reps and potential push to win at TPC San Antonio should only help. In knocking the rust off of his game, it's clear that McIlroy is comfortable with the new equipment.
NBC's Johnny Miller indicated during Saturday's telecast that he ran into McIlroy in the hotel. McIlroy proceeded to tell him that his shoulders were unwittingly open at address, which caused him to have to reroute the club too dramatically during the transition to his downswing.
Now that his fundamentals are sounder, McIlroy seems geared up to make a run to remedy the past two disappointments, bidding to notch the third leg of the career Grand Slam.
For a number of years, Lefty was labeled as the best player in the world not to win a major. Since his breakthrough at 2004 Masters, he has won the green jacket twice more—and as recently as 2010.
This season has been wildly inconsistent for Mickelson, and it seems only fitting for a player whose course management is consistently polarizing, dumbfounding and yes, thrilling all at once.
Mickelson is a maverick who plays with relentless aggression, and his touch on and around the greens is second to virtually no one. Shots that don't appear possible are the ones that Mickelson seems to pull off more than most.
After having difficulty with the typically reliable flatstick and even utilizing the claw, a thickened putter grip and less exaggerated forward-press move before the stroke has allowed Mickelson's scoring to improve.
A strong weekend at the Shell Houston Open with rounds of 67 and 68 gives Mickelson some valuable momentum as he prepares to make the stroll down Magnolia Lane.
If his game isn't completely on and he continues to be too bold, Mickelson may be in for a long week. Should he maintain his form from Humble, though, Lefty should be in the thick of things down the stretch.
The 2011 champion benefited from Rory McIlroy's meltdown, but he definitely earned his green jacket by birdieing the final four holes to beat out clubhouse leaders Adam Scott and Jason Day.
Between the end of 2012 and the start of this year, few have been hotter than Schwartzel, who didn't handle his major success well but has finally begun to reemerge as an elite player.
The smooth-swinging South African has a scoring average of 68.677 on the PGA Tour thus far and is making nearly five birdies per round. With the combination of his long game being in order and his always rock-solid putting, Schwartzel has as good of a chance as anyone of winning.
A tune-up in San Antonio provides a stiff, major-caliber test for Schwartzel.
He is out of contention, but that may not be a bad thing. Schwartzel will likely be fluttering under the radar entering Augusta, which should free up the 28-year-old to play loose and have a fantastic showing to back up his prior breakthrough.
Here is the man who should have a piece of major championship glory on his resume already. Rose is one of the premier ball-strikers in the world, and when his putter gets hot, there's not telling how low he'll go.
At just 17 years old, Rose tied for fourth at the British Open in 1998, turned pro shortly thereafter, tumbled off the map amidst a myriad of missed cuts and has risen to No. 3 in the world in his early 30s.
With top-five finishes at all four majors and various shares of the lead at Augusta in particular, it's only a matter of time before Rose captures that elusive first one.
Unfortunately, the putter continues to be his Achilles' heel, as Rose ranks just 109th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting in 2013. In spite of that shortcoming, he has still managed to post top-10 finishes in four of his six events.
It has been over a year since Rose's last victory at the 2012 WGC-Cadillac Championship, which indicates that a player of his caliber is due for something special.
The past four events have seen Bradley post finishes of joint fourth, seventh, a share of third and another top-10 last week at the Shell Houston Open.
Bradley has the intense focus and requisite fortitude to thrive in the pressure-cooker of Augusta, as evidenced by the steely resolve he showed to win the 2011 PGA Championship.
Considering his level of talent and status as the United States' best young star, it's surprising that Bradley has not notched wins on a more consistent basis. However, two of his three Tour wins have come in playoffs, and the other was had by one stroke after he holed a 15-footer on the 72nd hole at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Part of the lack of winning is due to Bradley's all-out style, where his supremely quick club-head speed causes him to hit the ball extremely high.
That is a disadvantage when weathering the elements, but in the friendly southern climate that this marquee tournament fosters, Bradley's game is a wonderful fit.
The length that Bradley possesses gives him a huge advantage on the relatively short par-fives that Augusta sports and should lend to plenty of valuable scoring opportunities.