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What to watch for as the Masters begins in Georgia
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — From the renegade LIV tour to Scottie Scheffler's bid for a second straight green jacket to an elongated 13th hole, golf's first major of the year provides its usual abundance of compelling storylines.
Oh, and let's not forget Tiger Woods.
Welcome to the Masters, where the golf year really gets started on Thursday amid the blooming azaleas and towering pines of Augusta National Golf Club.
Here are some things to watch for over the next four days:
Super Bowl of golf
The Masters marks the biggest showdown yet between the established PGA Tour and brash challenger LIV.
While there were no outward signs of hostility during the practice rounds and champions dinner, the rivalry between those players who stuck with the PGA and those who chose the generational wealth doled out by LIV's Saudi backers is unavoidable.
All eyes will be on the scoreboard to see how LIV's 18 entrants are faring against the rest of the field.
If one of them claimed the green jacket, it would undoubtedly draw comparisons to the New York Jets beating the Baltimore Colts in the third Super Bowl — an astounding result that put the neophyte American Football League on equal footing with the NFL.
Golf is an individual game, of course, but so many harsh words have been exchanged over the past year that it's impossible to ignore the significance of the Masters to both tours.
"I'd love to see one of us guys get up to the top of the leaderboard and really give it a nice shot," said Cameron Smith, the reigning British Open champion who defected to LIV.
Only three players have repeated as Masters champions: Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Woods.
Scheffler seems primed to make a run at joining that illustrious trio, coming in as the world's top-ranked player, with two victories and nine straight finishes inside the top 12.
"Just because you're defending doesn't mean I get to start at 1-under," he said. "I'll be approaching it just like I do a lot of other tournaments."
Scheffler figures to get a stiff challenge from Rory McIlroy and perhaps Jon Rahm, the next two guys in the world rankings.
Those three dominated the first quarter of the year.
Rahm became the first player in nearly 50 years to win three times on the West Coast swing, though he struggled in March. McIlroy has two victories and two other top-three finishes in the past six months.
Scheffler and McIlroy are co-favorites at the Masters, with Rahm right on their heels, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
Like Scheffler, McIlroy is also chasing history.
The Northern Irishman needs the Masters to complete a career Grand Slam. Only five players have won all four of golf's biggest events.
"It's just a matter of time. Rory has the talent. He has the game. He has all the tools," said Woods, the most recent player to complete the modern career Slam. The others are Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen.
The 13th, nicknamed "Azalea," has long been the easiest hole on the course.
Finally, it's playing like a par-5.
After acquiring a chunk of land from neighboring Augusta Country Club, the tee box at 13 was pushed back 35 yards.
That increased the distance of the hole to 545 yards, more in line with other par 5s at major tournaments. If all goes according to plan, expect a lot more intrigue on the back nine Sunday.
Masters Chairman Fred Ridley said the modifications will help "restore the element of risk and reward" that was intended in the original design of the course. Golfers will be faced with the choice of going for the green in two from a much longer spot, or laying up and focusing on the green with their third shot.
For Xander Schauffele, it's a no-brainer.
"It puts you in that no man's land," Schauffele said of the added yards. "You just lay up. There's not much to it."
Taming a tiger
Woods is just a part-time player these days, but no one knows their way around Augusta National better than the five-time champion.
Woods stunningly made the cut a year ago, still hobbling after a devastating car wreck.
A slight limp remains, a reminder of all the physical tribulations he has endured over the past decade and a half.
But that swing looks as smooth as ever.
"You know, if he didn't have to walk up these hills and have all of that, I'd say he'd be one of the favorites," McIlroy marveled. "He's got all of the shots."
Woods never plays without believing he has a chance to win, but he knows the odds are stacked heavily against capturing a sixth green jacket — a feat that only Nicklaus has accomplished, back in 1986 at the age of 46.
Woods is 47 now.
"I don't know how many more I have in me," he allowed.
The unpredictable weather of early April is expected to be on full display this week, which could lead to big changes on the course.
Augusta National was baked by temperatures approaching 90 degrees the day before the tournament, and more of the same was forecast for the opening round.
But a storm front was bearing down on east Georgia, bringing potentially heavy rainfall and knocking temperatures into the low 50s by the weekend, forecasters said.
The player that proves most adaptable to that wide range of conditions will likely be the one wearing the green jacket come Sunday evening.