Top players could set up classic Masters
The U.S. Masters, global sport's eagerly anticipated rite of spring, could provide one of its most memorable editions this year if golf's "Big Four" stand and deliver.
Three-times winner Tiger Woods, world number one Vijay Singh, defending champion Phil Mickelson and 2004 runner-up Ernie Els have all produced triumphant form on occasions this season.
Should they find similar inspiration amid the rhododendrons, azaleas and loblolly pines at Augusta National in Georgia from next Thursday, then golf fans will be able to savour something extra special.
When American left-hander Mickelson won last year's title by a shot to end a wait of more than a decade for his first major victory, he did so after an epic battle of shot-making with South African Els.
Three-times major winner Els appeared to have the green jacket within his grasp when leading by two strokes with five holes to play, but was overhauled by a red-hot Mickelson who covered the back nine in a blistering five-under 31.
Els closed with a 67 and Mickelson a 69 as the pair slugged it out in a veritable birdie-fest in the final round at Augusta.
If that can be duplicated next week, with Fijian Singh and American Woods also in the mix, Augusta officials could not wish for a better script.
The omens are certainly promising with Woods and Mickelson having won twice each on this year's PGA Tour, Singh triumphing at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January and Els producing back-to-back wins on the European Tour in the Arabian Gulf.
Best of all was the manner in which Woods out-duelled Mickelson by a shot to clinch last month's Doral Open in Miami.
In echoes of the 2004 Masters finish, the pair rose to the challenge with a stunning display of shot-making in the final round.
Mickelson battled right to the end, very nearly chipping in from just off the green at the last to force a playoff.
Woods, however, was in sublime form all week. After surging two shots clear with an eagle at the par-five 12th, he effectively sealed victory by holing a 28-foot birdie putt at the 17th.
He broke the tournament's 72-hole record with a brilliant, closing six-under-par 66 to reclaim, briefly, the number one spot in the world rankings from Singh.
Although Mickelson spoke of his own delight in taking on an in-form Woods at Doral, he could have been speaking on behalf of all genuine fans of the game.
"I loved the competition, I loved going head-to-head with him, I'm just a little ticked at myself that I didn't win," he said.
"I loved the fact he was playing his best. I wanted the chance to beat him at his best, I'm just disappointed I didn't do it.
"This was probably the best thing that could happen to me heading to the majors because I felt like I was playing better than everybody and just knew I was going to win.
"When I come back to the Masters, I'm going to be ready."
Not all the omens, however, have been favourable for a thrilling "Big Four" showdown at Augusta in the first of the year's four major golf championships.
Last week's Players' Championship at Sawgrass, widely regarded as the sport's unofficial fifth major, proved to be a damp squib for the quartet in more ways than one.
Not only was the rain-hit PGA Tour event played out over five days but the so-called "Fab Four" collectively failed to deliver.
All four are prodigiously long off the tee but, with none of them in the top 80 on the PGA Tour's driving accuracy charts, it was hardly surprising that all four were heavily penalised by the thick rough at Sawgrass.
Singh produced the best finish there in gusting winds on the last day, a closing 72 lifting him into a tie for 12th at four-under 284.
Els carded a 69, his best round of the week, for joint 17th place at three under while Mickelson battled to a 75 for a share of 40th at two over.
Woods, the 2001 Players' champion, ended up a further three strokes back in a tie for 53rd after returning a second successive 75.
"I'm going to forget about it," the former world number one said of his Sawgrass experience. "I'm taking a break to shut it down for a couple days to regroup and get ready for Augusta."
While the likely form of the "Big Four" has dominated pre-Masters talk, it would be a mistake to overlook the credentials of some of the other challengers.
U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen of South Africa, WGC-Accenture Match Play winner David Toms of the U.S. and Spaniard Sergio Garcia are highly rated by their peers and have performed well at Augusta.
Americans Davis Love III and Chris DiMarco, 2003 winner Mike Weir of Canada and Ireland's Padraig Harrington are also likely to shine, while much is expected of the younger guns such as Australia's Adam Scott and Britain's Luke Donald.