Although the 2014 golf season is already underway, Thursday's first round of the Masters will kick things into another gear.
The first major of the year is considered by many to be the most important, as every golfer in the field wants to get the major season started on a high note. There are few bigger honors than donning the green jacket, and the field is wide open this year.
With Tiger Woods out of action due to a back injury, it could be argued that there isn't as much intrigue surrounding the Masters this year, but his absence will allow several other talented golfers to steal the spotlight.
Parity has reached a fever pitch on the PGA Tour, and it should make for a fantastic tournament.
Check back here throughout the first day of action at Augusta for leaderboard updates along with a look at some of the top contenders at the 2014 Masters.
2014 Masters Leaderboard
For a complete list of scores, visit the tournament's official site.
Top Stars to Watch
It is no secret that Rory McIlroy struggled in 2013 after a breakthrough 2012, but he may be ready to re-assume his spot atop the golfing world. Although the Northern Irishman hasn't won a tournament yet this year, he has certainly been in the mix.
McIlroy is coming off a strong seventh-place finish at the Shell Houston Open, and Shane Bacon of Yahoo! Sports views that as a possible sign he will be in the mix at the Masters:
Let me be the 8,001st person to say it - Rory McIlroy seems to be peaking at a fairly decent time. He’s in the field next week, right?— Shane Bacon (@shanebacon) April 6, 2014
The 24-year-old McIlroy has already won the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship, and he has an opportunity to come one step closer to capturing the career Grand Slam by winning the Masters.
McIlroy seemed destined to do just that back in 2011 when he entered the final round of the Masters with a four-shot lead. But he fell apart and shot an 80 to close out the tournament, which resulted in a disappointing 15th-place finish.
McIlroy was able to shake that off and win two majors thereafter, but he admitted that the collapse took a toll on him, per the PGA Tour on Twitter:
"That's probably the only time I've cried over golf... the morning after (the Masters) in 2011." - Rory McIlroy #PGATOUR— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) April 8, 2014
As tough as that meltdown had to be on McIlroy, he may ultimately look back on it as a blessing in disguise. McIlroy has been through the most traumatic experience of his career already, so there is nothing he can't handle.
With that in mind, along with his excellent current form, McIlroy will be a factor at Augusta.
Augusta has long been known as Tiger's playground, but Phil Mickelson can certainly stake a claim to that distinction as well. Lefty has won the green jacket on three occasions, so he is already a Masters legend. Winning a fourth time would tie Mickelson with Woods and cement his already legendary status.
While Mickelson hasn't played his best golf so far this year, he tends to raise his game to the next level at Augusta. He is also coming off an encouraging 12th-place performance at the Shell Houston Open, which stands as his best PGA Tour finish this season.
There were some concerns regarding his status after he withdrew from the Valero Texas Open in March, but Mickelson answered the bell in Houston.
Also, the Masters scheduling will play right into Mickelson's hands. He has a late tee time for Thursday's first round, and that happens to be his preference, according to Jason Sobel of GolfChannel.com:
Phil Mickelson before 2011 Masters: "I like the latest tee time possible here.” Since then, his Thursday tee times: 1:48, 1:53, 1:30, 1:48.— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelGC) April 8, 2014
It is no secret that Mickelson pretty much can't be defeated when he is playing up to his potential, but he is notoriously streaky. He has had plenty of good streaks at Augusta, and he is certainly hopeful that he'll be able to string four good rounds together this year.
With no Tiger in the field, it's fair to say Mickelson will be the sentimental favorite.
Who is most likely to win the 2014 Masters?
Adam Scott was long considered one of the best golfers to never win a major, but that changed last year when he finally put it all together and captured the green jacket. Repeating as Masters champion is no easy task, but there is no question that the 33-year-old Aussie has all the tools necessary to do it.
Scott has three top-10 finishes this year in just five events, and while he hasn't played since the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month, he looked great in a third-place finish. The true test for Scott, though, is living up to expectations now that he is viewed as one of the top contenders.
Breaking through to win a major wasn't easy for Scott, and it could prove even tougher to win a second one. According to Ewan Murray of The Guardian, Scott now feels at ease when it comes to major tournaments:
I think over the last couple of years, I could definitely say I've been quietly confident coming to the majors. I've seen my form improve and the way I've played the majors gets better and better, and know if I execute the way I want, that I'd be a chance, and I've been a chance over the last few years.
With Scott's major results improving significantly as of late, there is no doubt he is someone worth watching at Augusta. He has a chance to ascend to No. 1 in the world, and that could be incentive enough for him to reign supreme.
Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter.