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The Masters - In depth preview
The Masters 2001 - Field
At a glance summary
Lee Westwood withdraws from Masters
Nicklaus, Palmer & Player paired together
Duval confident that wrist is healed
Tiger Woods centre of Masters attention
Singh chooses Thai for Masters menu
Pairings for Rounds 1 & 2
David Toms wins traditional par 3 contest
Tiger Woods at the mercy of Augusta
Augusta to undergo facelift in summer
Jack Nicklaus slates modern ball design
Masters considering extended TV coverage
The Masters - In depth preview

Golf's annual Rite of Spring is just around the corner, and with it comes a chance for another historic milestone in the career of the game's brightest star.

Tiger Woods, the winner of last year's U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship, would become the first player to hold all four of golf's professional major titles at the same time with a victory in the 65th edition of The Masters Tournament.

And this is where the Grand Slam debate officially begins. While many people, including Woods, believe that all four at once is enough to make his achievement Slam-worthy, hard-liners such as Arnold Palmer will tell Woods that he should go buy a calendar.

"That is ridiculous," said Palmer, a seven-time major winner. "If he wins it, he's starting a new one. It's not a continuation of last year. That takes the fun out of it. That takes away the kick out of winning the Grand Slam."

Jack Nicklaus, the winner of a record 18 majors, sounded a bit more on the fence.

"Grand Slam is winning all four of them in one year," he said. "What is your year, calendar or fiscal? It would be pretty special whatever it is."

It's not Woods' fault there is a controversy. Nobody within golf's governing bodies nor in the press thought to come up with a catchy name for winning four major championships in a row, but not in the same year.

Bobby Jones, founder of Augusta National and The Masters Tournament, was the only golfer in history to complete what was later coined the Grand Slam when in 1930 he captured the four events that then made up the major championship rotation: the U.S. and British Amateurs and the U.S. and British Opens. Ben Hogan, the only other player besides Woods to win three of the modern majors in a single season, never had the opportunity to go for the Slam. In 1953, the year he won his second Masters title and fourth U.S. Open Championship, Hogan chose to bypass the PGA, an event that he had already won twice, and instead went overseas for British Open qualifying, which was being held at the same time. Hogan, whose subsequent triumph at Carnoustie came in his one and only appearance at the British Open, completed what is known as the career Grand Slam.

While it's true that a win this week would make it so Woods has hoisted all four major trophies in less than a year (nine months and 21 days, to be exact), the pressure he may feel heading into this year's Masters can't compare with the weight of expectations on a player who enters a PGA Championship with the first three majors of the year under his belt.

Not that Woods hasn't dealt with pressure and expectations before. After leaving behind a storied amateur career that included an unprecedented three straight U.S. Amateur titles, Woods grabbed the professional golf world by the throat with two victories and three top-10 finishes in only eight PGA Tour starts in 1996. In 1997, his first full season on tour, Woods collected four wins, chief among them his first major conquest in a record-setting performance at The Masters. Woods lit up the leaderboard that week, posting rounds of 70-66-65-69 for a tournament-record total of 270. Woods' 12-shot victory set another Masters mark, and was at the time the fourth- largest winning margin in PGA Tour history.

Flash forward four years, then back up one month. Woods, who forged one of the greatest seasons in the history of the game in 2000 with nine wins, including career-Grand-Slam-completing victories in the U.S. and British Opens, had to entertain questions about a supposed "slump." It seemed that at the ripe old age of 25, Woods had lost some of the magic because he failed to win in the span of eight straight starts dating back to the end of 2000.

He put an end to the silliness last month with a successful title defense at Bay Hill, then captured the last high echelon event to elude his grasp with a win a week later at The Players Championship.

But there are reasons why Woods struggled somewhat to start the 2001 season, and those same reasons make him far from a shoe-in to win his second green jacket.

Woods is currently ranked 93rd on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy -- not a big deal a few years back, before the introduction of (gasp!) rough at Augusta National. But the fairways are more defined today, and the incredibly tricky green complexes won't accept the run-of-the-mill approach from the higher grass. However, Woods has hit over 70 percent of his greens in regulation this year (ranked 17th), so he obviously has been able to overcome some of his wayward shots off the tee. Should he find the fairways this week, his superior length will leave him with shorter irons into the greens, which is just the ticket when the goal is to land a ball on surfaces as slick as linoleum.

Putting is always an issue at The Masters, and one of the reasons Woods romped through the azaleas back in '97 was that he didn't suffer a single three-putt. But while he has wowed the crowds with some miraculously swerving and curving long putts this year, Woods is still prone to the four-foot lip-out. He stands in 58th place in putts per round (28.86) and 68th in putts per green (1.761).

The best news for Woods fans is that he is ranked fourth on the PGA Tour in par-five performance. He is a combined 65-under par on the long holes, where he has made 61 birdies in 105 attempts. Look for Woods to make a number of birdies -- and maybe even an eagle or two -- on Augusta's shortish par-fives, which ranked as the four easiest holes on the course last year.

Speaking of last year, defending champion Vijay Singh looks primed to become the first back-to-back winner of The Masters since Nick Faldo won successive green jackets in 1989 and '90. The tall, dark man from Fiji is off to a terrific start to his 2001 season, with five top-four finishes in eight PGA Tour events. After taking second at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in early February, Singh joined the European Tour's Far East swing and recorded consecutive wins in the Malaysian Open and the Singapore Masters. He picked up the PGA Tour in Florida, notching a tie for third in Doral and joint fourth two weeks later at Bay Hill.

Singh was right in it with Woods on the back nine of the Monday finish at The Players Championship, but pulled his drive into the water at the 14th hole on his way to a triple-bogey. Singh recovered two strokes at 16, where he played a brilliant shot out of the rough with the toe of his putter, bumping his ball into the cup for an eagle. He went on to birdie the treacherous island green at 17, but in the end fell one shot short and had to settle for his second runner-up of the season.

Prior to last year, Singh's struggles on the green were a reason not to list him as a favorite at Augusta. And while he managed to come out on top in 2000, his 124 putts over the four days were the most ever by a Masters champion. That's bad news for the rest of the field, as Singh has elevated his putting game to the point where he is currently third on the tour in putting average (1.691).

At last October's Presidents Cup, an event that, unlike the ultra-patriotic Ryder Cup, is about as likely to stir controversy and hard feelings as a scramble at the local pitch-and-putt, Singh's caddie showed up for their singles match versus Woods wearing a cap with the question "Tiger Who?" stitched on the back. Now it's been said that the two players are not the best of friends, so things got chilly early in the match when Singh was prepared to pick up his 1 1/2-footer and Woods, arms folded impatiently across his chest, made Singh putt out.

Suffice to say it would be great golf theater should Woods and Singh be paired together in Sunday's final round. And it's not a stretch to believe that they will.

Phil Mickelson, whose picture may be in the golf encyclopedia under the heading "Best Player Without a Major," comes into The Masters on a bit of a shaky streak. Sure, he survived a playoff to defend his Buick Invitational title in February, and has posted three other top-threes to boot. But "Lefty" lately has turned in some pretty interesting scorecards rife with a mixture of birdies, eagles, bogeys and worse.

One thing Mickelson has going for him is his past performance at Augusta National. The 18-time PGA Tour winner has finished in the top-10 four times in eight appearances, including a third-place showing in 1996. He was one shot off the lead after two rounds a year ago, but shot a third-round 76 and wound up tied for seventh. But if Mickelson is in the midst of working out some kinks in his game, The Masters may not be the best remedy for what ails him.

Davis Love III, whose win at the 2001 Pebble Beach Pro-Am marked his first victory in nearly three years, collected a $500,000 bonus for his overall performance on the PGA Tour's West Coast swing, which included three other top-10s in his five early-season starts. He finished sixth at Doral, but missed the cut three weeks later at Sawgrass. Love tied for 11th this past week at the BellSouth Classic.

Love, the winner of the 1997 PGA Championship at Winged Foot, is playing his best golf in years and is about due for a second major title. The Georgia native is third in scoring average behind Woods and Singh, and his success over the early part of this year should give him the confidence at Augusta, where he is a two-time runner-up (1995, '99).

David Duval, who was one stroke back of Singh through two of the three holes of Amen Corner in last year's final round, knocked his second shot at the par-five 13th into Rae's Creek and finished tied for third place, his third straight top-10 showing in the event. Despite his relative success in The Masters, it's tough to say how Duval will fair this year, as he bowed out of the Nissan Open due to fatigue and withdrew from the Bay Hill Invitational and The Players Championship with a wrist injury. His best finish of 2001 was seventh at the Mercedes Championships, his first event of the season. He went on to miss consecutive cuts at the Phoenix Open and Pebble Beach, followed by a tie for 51st at the Bob Hope event and a tie for 63rd at Doral.

Perhaps the hardest player to get a handle on is Ernie Els, the two-time U.S. Open winner who finished second in three of the four majors last year, including The Masters. Els kicked off 2001 with a fourth-place finish at the season-opening WGC-Match Play Championship in Australia, then added a couple of third-place showings at the Mercedes and the Sony Open in Hawaii. In fact, Els' quick start to the season saw him place second behind Love for the West Coast swing bonus.

Over his next five events, however, Els missed two cuts and finished as far back as 62nd and no higher than 25th. The low point may have come this past weekend at the BellSouth, where he posted a third-round 81 for his worst score since he shot 84 in the second round of the 1993 Honda Classic. Like Mickelson, it's hard to pick Els to win if he is struggling with his game.

Some past winners of major championships to watch out for include: Nick Price, Paul Azinger, Tom Lehman, Justin Leonard and Hal Sutton. Sutton, the 1983 PGA Championship winner, has missed 11 cuts in his 14 appearances at Augusta National, but registered his best finish last year with a solo 10th.

The former major winner who may be one of the more intriguing names come Thursday is 40-year-old Mark Calcavecchia. The 1989 British Open champ won his 10th PGA Tour title and his first since 1998 with the all-time PGA Tour record score at the Phoenix Open. Calcavecchia's 72-hole total of 256 broke the Tour's long-standing mark of 257 set by Mike Souchak in the 1955 Texas Open. He failed to qualify for the weekend the last time he played in The Masters in 1999, but has seven top-25 finishes including a second behind Sandy Lyle in 1988.

Of the strong international contingent invited to Augusta this year, a pair of two-time Masters champions have as good a shot as any to grab a green jacket. Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal and Germany's Bernhard Langer both have played exclusively on the PGA Tour so far this season, and their preparation for The Masters seem to be paying off. Olazabal carded impressive weekend rounds of 68-69 to vault into a tie for 12th at The Players Championship, while Langer shot 68-68-67 over the final three rounds of that tournament to finish in third place behind Woods and Singh. Langer is currently 25th on the season money list, his highest ranking since he finished in the 23rd spot after winning his second Masters title in 1993.

Swedish eccentric Jesper Parnevik, a five-time PGA Tour winner after capturing the Honda Classic a month ago, is on the threshold of breaking into the elite golfer category. However, his fellow Europeans Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood, while far more successful than the Swede on the other side of the Atlantic, haven't fared as well in the U.S., although "Monty" has finished second three times in majors in the States and Westwood won in New Orleans in 1998.

Robert Allenby, a mortal lock to win in extra holes if he finishes tied for the lead in regulation, heads the list of darkhorses in this year's field. The Australian captured his third PGA Tour title after a six-man sudden death at the Nissan Open, running his playoff record to 7-0 worldwide. Putting virtuosos like Brad Faxon and Loren "Boss of the Moss" Roberts are always safe picks to hang around through the weekend, while folk heroes such as Bob May and Joe Durant would simply make great stories should one of them manage to pull it off.

While on the subject of great stories, it should be noted that three-time runner-up and sentimental favorite Greg Norman is 46 this year, the same age as Nicklaus when he delighted the golf world with his sixth Masters victory in 1986.

Now wouldn't that be something?