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Woods outright favourite for Masters defence

Augusta National has been newly-toughened and most of the leading contenders are high on confidence but the clear favorite for next week's U.S. Masters is the same player who won last year's title.

Defending champion Tiger Woods, the firmly established world number one, made golfing history at Augusta last April when he triumphed by two shots over David Duval to become the first to hold all four majors at the same time.

The 26-year-old Woods, who will be bidding for his third green jacket in the first of the year's four major championships, will again be the man to beat when the 2002 Masters gets underway on April 11.

The Florida-based player has no equal in the modern game when it comes to peaking for the majors and currently leads the U.S. PGA Tour's money list after winning last month's Bay Hill Invitational by four strokes.

"It's coming along. It's progressing. I feel like my game is certainly progressing," said Woods, who has taken a two-week break to prepare for Augusta.

"I'm excited about the changes I've been working on. They're starting to come together now. It's just a matter of time."

The world number one is predicting some high scoring next week, as nine of the holes at Augusta National have been lengthened since last year's tournament.

The famous layout now measures 7,270 yards, making it the fifth longest course in major championship history.

"If the wind blows like it did when Vijay (Singh) won in 2000, I can see guys shooting in the 80's," said Woods.

"If the wind doesn't blow at all and we get absolutely perfectly ideal conditions, then I still think it's going to play one or two shots harder.

"I've already played the golf course since the changes have occurred and I'm really looking forward to getting out there and playing my game on the new golf course. It's one heck of a test."

While Woods will be the undoubted favorite for the title next week, he will not enjoy the huge psychological advantage he established over his rivals during his remarkable 2000 when he won the last three majors of the year.

Twice Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal, 2000 winner Singh, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Retief Goosen and Phil Mickelson have all produced winning style this year and any of the six is quite capable of taming the Tiger.

The in-form Olazabal is probably the most dangerous, given his impressive track record at Augusta, and he currently lies second in both the U.S. money list and the European Tour's order of merit.

The 36-year-old Spaniard, Masters champion in 1994 and 1999, possesses a brilliant short game and now that he has solved his accuracy problems off the tee is almost certain to contend next week.

Olazabal triumphed in the U.S. Tour's Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines in February and is backed by Butch Harmon, who coaches Woods among others, to feature in all four of this year's majors.

"The fruits of his labors are really beginning to show and he's driving beautifully," Harmon said.

"Ollie could be in contention in all four majors this year."

Singh ended a victory drought of almost two years on the PGA Tour when he won the Houston Open by six shots Sunday, setting a tournament scoring record of 22-under-par 266 in the process.

The win, his 10th on the tour, lifted him to number six in the world rankings and confirmed the tall Fijian is in fine fettle for the season's opening major.

"I wanted to get into contention before the Masters, and I couldn't find a better way to do it than to win a golf tournament," said the 39-year-old, whose previous victory in the United States came at the 2000 Masters.

"I'm driving beautifully and it's good to know I've got that for Augusta. My swing feels good, and everybody says it looks good."

World number three Els has won three times this year and the big-hitting South African is also exuding confidence ahead of next week.

"I think my game is pretty good at the moment and they have done a wonderful job with the course changes at Augusta," he said.

"You have to be accurate off the tee and I'd like to think it (the course) plays more into my hands. I have form and there is no reason why I should not play to it."

World number five Garcia, U.S. Open champion Goosen and left-handed Mickelson have all tasted at least one victory each this year and all three back themselves to beat Woods if they can get into contention come Sunday.

But Woods remains the title favorite and, if he wins at Augusta next week, he will have clinched his sixth major in 10 successive outings.

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