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Masters 2012: Golf’s best players, including Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, are playing their best

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Perfection isn’t so much a pursuit at Augusta National Golf Club as it is a practice. So there remains the possibility that, come Thursday morning, the azaleas, long since the victims of an early spring, will somehow bloom fresh. The trees felled by a violent storm Tuesday night will somehow re-root themselves. The ground soaked by more than an inch of rain will dry up, and the Masters will be what the Masters almost always is: a roars-from-all-corners, don’t-turn-away-lest-you-miss-something rite of spring.

Alas, Masters officials can’t control everything. But when they went to bed Wednesday night with the course again immaculate, they could know that all was in order because unlike any Masters in recent memory, the best players are playing their best golf on the eve of the year’s first major. Predicting what might happen in any golf tournament is fickle at best. But the leading charactersTiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Luke Donald, with more who fit in nicely — aren’t searching for their games or themselves. The planets are aligned and, as Englishman Lee Westwood said, “It’s whipped up a bit of a frenzy, I suppose.”

The frenzy is scarcely contrived. In February, three-time Masters champion Mickelson found his putting stroke on the jagged Pacific coast and dusted Woods in a memorable finish at Pebble Beach. On the first weekend in March, Woods, a four-time champion here , shot a final-round 62 — his best score ever on a Sunday — to emphatically confirm that his swing was intact. Yet he was still beaten that day by a resolute McIlroy, the reigning U.S. Open champion and the game’s next-brightest beacon, who used his victory in the Honda Classic to seize the No. 1 ranking in the world.

Two weeks later, Donald — who last year closed with rounds of 68-69-69 here to finish tied for fourth — snared the top ranking back from McIlroy by winning himself, his fifth victory since the start of 2010. And all that simply served as an appetizer for Woods, who secured what was once, annually, his normal perch as the pre-Masters favorite with a convincing victory in Orlando.

The situation adds some immediacy when play begins Thursday morning — with Woods and Donald in the morning wave, Mickelson and McIlroy in the afternoon.

“As many players have won major championships [by] building into the event and getting better as the week progresses, I don’t think that’s the case this week,” Mickelson said. “I think because everybody is sharp, I think the scores are going to be low, and I’ve got to be sharp from day one — from shot one — to be able to compete and be in it for Sunday.”

The most recent Masters Sunday was unforgettable, a logjam of a leader board — eight different players at some point held a piece of the lead — that wasn’t sorted out until Charl Schwartzel, a South African who owns plenty of game but lacks name recognition, somehow birdied the final four holes for an enthralling victory. That day, one of the victims Schwartzel left behind was McIlroy, the Northern Irishman who frittered away a four-shot lead and, in doing so, appeared fragile.

McIlroy had no choice but to revisit that miserable experience as he returned here, both in his private moments on the course and in his public discourse. His tack: Offer it as an opportunity to talk not only about how he would handle himself differently, but how he is different as he assumes the status of a favorite.

“I definitely feel like I’ve come back here the same person, but just with a different attitude,” McIlroy said. The change: “I came in here last year hoping to do well and maybe to have a chance to win or whatever. But this year, I’m coming in with the attitude that I want to win, I want to put myself into contention.”

Contention, in this event, usually means dealing with Woods, who has 12 top-eight finishes in his last 15 Masters. No, he has not won here in his last six attempts. Yes, he has played 10 straight majors without a victory, matching the longest dry spell of his career. But there are two overriding factors: his striking return to form at Bay Hill, where he beat runner-up Graeme McDowell by five shots. Consider, too, that even as he dealt with a dodgy game and significant personal issues, he still managed to finish no worse than tied for sixth in his last six appearances here.

“It’s hard to go against Tiger Woods,” said three-time champion Gary Player, who will join Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as an honorary starter Thursday. “When Tiger Woods is playing his best, there’s nobody better.”

Thus, some of the buildup has centered around Woods vs. McIlroy, McIlroy vs. Woods. Though Mickelson said calmly, “I’m cool with it,” and Donald conceded, “Everyone wants to make that kind of rivalry, and obviously those two guys garner the most attention right now,” it is a notion that ignores the other worthy names that could join them Sunday evening.

“I think everybody in this room would have to be naive to think it was a two-horse race, wouldn’t they?” Westwood said. “There’s more. I think Phil might have a little something to say about that. Luke might. I might.”

There, then, are the horses, all the right ones at precisely the right time. They aren’t, they say, worrying about each other.

“You can’t go out on the golf course thinking about other people,” McIlroy said. “You just have to try and concentrate on yourself and try to get the ball around in the best score possible. That’s all I can really think about.”

So leave the rest of us to imagine what Sunday at the Masters — a phrase that carries weight with it on its own — might be like this time.

“Can you imagine what an exciting tournament it’s going to be?” Player said. “It’s going to be just marvelous.”

More on the Masters: Masters chairman sidesteps questions about female members at Augusta Video: Payne: No comment on Augusta membership issues McIroy, Woods and other players to watch Woods has fond memories of Augusta National Augusta National: Hole-by-hole guide Post Sports Live: Woods primed for Masters McIlroy already has revisited the site of last year’s meltdown Reid: Woods and redemption Woods at the Masters: “I’m here for a green jacket” The Masters rewards those with experience McIlroy’s first Masters since the meltdown intrigues the golf world

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