For many amateurs, the Masters marks the official start of the golf season.
For the professionals, however, they have been fine-tuning their craft relentlessly as they look to take home one of golf's highest honors—the coveted green jacket.
This year marks a big hole in the field as four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods will be absent due to a pinched nerve in his back which required surgery. It is the first time since 1994 that the field has not included Woods.
On his official website, Woods issued this statement regarding his injury and the tournament:
After attempting to get ready for the Masters, and failing to make the necessary progress, I decided, in consultation with my doctors, to have this procedure done.
I'd like to express my disappointment to the Augusta National membership, staff, volunteers and patrons that I will not be at the Masters. It's a week that's very special to me. It also looks like I'll be forced to miss several upcoming tournaments to focus on my rehabilitation and getting healthy.
I'd also like to thank the fans for their support and concern. It's very kind and greatly appreciated. This is frustrating, but it's something my doctors advised me to do for my immediate and long-term health.
Despite Woods' absence, this still could be a tournament for the ages. There are plenty of players in this year's field who could emerge after four arduous days at Augusta National.
Let's break down four players who look primed to go the distance.
The world's No. 7 player has a great shot of finally winning his first Masters this year.
McIlroy has been playing some very consistent golf so far in 2014. With one runner-up finish each on the PGA and European tours, he is playing well enough to be a major factor in the Masters.
In 2011, McIlroy tied for 15th—his best-ever Masters finish—after taking a four-shot lead into the final round. Last year, he finished T25. The way he's been playing lately, he could finally get over the hump.
Of course the defending champion makes the list. Instead of helping another athlete put on the green jacket this year, Scott may earn another one of his own.
The world's No. 2 player has one of the silkiest-smooth swings on the tour. He is a steady competitor, and when he gets hot, he is one of the few who can actually blow away the rest of the field.
Scott's track record at Augusta has been stellar. After missing the cut in 2009, he finished 18th, second, eighth and first.
Repeating as champion is as difficult a task as any. Woods was the last player to win consecutive Masters (2001-02), joining Jack Nicklaus (1965-66) and Nick Faldo (1989-90). If anyone has the talent to get it done, it would be Scott.
The world's 12th-ranked player is looking for his second Masters win in three years.
Watson has been rather erratic at Augusta, finishing T42, T38, first and T50 in his four tournament appearances.
Despite his up-and-down Masters performances and a winless 2013, Watson is riding a current hot streak that could propel him to the top once again. Already this season, he won one event and finished second twice.
Aside from shooting 83 and withdrawing after the opening round of his last event, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, he's absolutely mastered the mental game. As we know, that goes a long way at Augusta National.
Could this finally be the year that Westwood gets his Masters win?
Arguably the most consistent golfer in the tournament, the 40-year-old Westwood has recorded a plethora of near victories over the years.
Formerly ranked No. 1, Westwood has dropped to No. 38 in the world, but that won't matter when he begins another run at Augusta.
Finishing second in 2010 was as close as Westwood has come at Augusta. However, that was not his only fine showing. Last year, Westwood finished T8, his third top-10 finish at the Masters in the last four years.
Westwood's been steady and knows the course well. He explained his mentality entering this year's tournament to James Corrigan of The Telegraph:
I learnt from what happened to me 10 or so years ago. Just to sit back and look at it with a clear mind, rather than panic. Yeah, I've changed coaches a few times. I went with Sean [Foley] and now I'm with Mike [Walker], but it was all calculated. They weren't spur-of-the-second decisions like it was back then, when I was rushing around looking for a quick answer. They don't exist in golf. You've got to work through it.
Keeping a clear mind and dominating the mental aspect of the game could be what finally pushes Westwood over the top in 2014.
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