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Page last updated at 06:07 GMT, Thursday, 9 April 2009 07:07 UK

Woods ready for Masters campaign

Tiger Woods
Woods was followed by huge crowds in this week's practice rounds

THE MASTERS
Venue: Augusta, Georgia Date: Thursday, 9 April-Sunday, 12 April
Coverage: Live coverage on BBC Two/BBC One, Radio 5 Live sports extra, Red Button, HD and the sport website 2100-0030. Live from Amen Corner 1545-2215 on the Red Button and the sport website. Updates on 5 Live and live text commentary on the sport website from 1300 BST.

By Rob Hodgetts
BBC Sport at Augusta

Tiger Woods will start as hot favourite to win a fifth Green Jacket when the most anticipated Masters for years begins at Augusta on Thursday.

The American, 33, is competing in his first major since taking eight months off for knee surgery.

Two-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson and Ireland's Padraig Harrington, who is chasing a third straight major, will be among Woods' principal rivals.

Ian Woosnam tees off in the first group at 1300 BST, and Woods begins at 1852.

Paul Casey is Britain's leading hope of a first Masters champion since 1996, while there has not been a European winner at Augusta since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999.

Veteran Australian Greg Norman, 54, a three-time Masters runner-up, returns to Augusta for the first time since 2002 courtesy of his third-place finish at last year's Open and will be a firm favourite among the galleries.

Gary Player celebrates after a 'hole-in-one' with his second shot off the tee

Masters Par 3 course holes-in-one

But it is Woods, chasing a 15th major title, who will shoulder all the attention following his remarkable victory in last June's US Open when he overcame a debilitating knee injury to beat countryman Rocco Mediate in an 18-hole play-off.

Woods is adamant he is back to full fitness and insists that he is as mentally sharp as ever, as he proved when he came back from five shots adrift going into the last day to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill at the end of March.

"I really wanted to get into contention again and feel the rush on the back nine," said Woods.

"It's been a while and a lot of uncertainty over the months and months of rehab. I was surprised at how fast I got the feeling back. Coming here now feels like any other major championship."

In his absence, Harrington won the Open and the USPGA back-to-back and is going for the third leg of what is being dubbed the 'Paddy Slam' of holding all four majors at once.

606: DEBATE
PaddyFromWaterford

But he concedes that such an accolade is not his main motivation, nor an undue pressure.

"It's a chance to win another major," he said. "I'm going to have that pressure for the foreseeable future in majors. I'm going to turn up to a lot of them and know that if I play my game, I can win."

Mickelson has won two out of the last five Masters and comes to Augusta in good order having won twice this year to regain his second place in the world rankings from Sergio Garcia.

"I feel like right now I'm playing some of the best golf that I've ever played," said Mickelson. "I'm driving the ball better then I ever have. I feel like in the next five years I'll be able to achieve levels of play that I haven't achieved earlier in my career."

Spain's Garcia is still chasing his maiden major title but is perhaps Europe's best chance of a first Masters champion since countryman Olazabal 10 years ago.

Casey is on top form having won in Houston on Sunday to climb to sixth in the world. The Englishman has an impressive record of three top-11 finishes in his four Masters appearances and could be the one to emulate countryman Nick Faldo, who won the last of his three Masters titles in 1996.

Woods' confidence stuns reporters into silence

Plenty of attention is also being lavished on 19-year-old Rory McIlroy from Belfast, who is making his Masters debut after racing to 17th in the world on the back of a maiden European Tour win in Dubai in February.

Of the overseas challengers, Australian Geoff Ogilvy has used his 2006 US Open victory as a springboard and is a realistic contender after reaching fourth in the world with two wins so far this year.

Many pundits are also tipping Sweden's Henrik Stenson, the world number eight, South Africa's two-time US Open champion Retief Goosen and compatriot Ernie Els, both twice Masters runners-up, as lively challengers.

Another South African, Trevor Immelman, is the defending champion, while countryman Gary Player is bowing out of major championships after this year's event following 52 consecutive Masters appearances.

The 73-year-old won Green Jackets in 1961, 1974 and 1978 and will join contemporaries Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus on the sidelines.

The weather for the next four days is set to warm up following a spell of cool, windy conditions in practice and should help scoring, alleviating the feeling in some quarters that the event has lost its magic following two years of harsh weather allied to a toughening up of the course.

The 73rd Masters, in its 75th year, begins with Palmer taking the first shot as honorary starter at 0750 local time (1250 BST) on Thursday.

Welshman Woosnam, the 1991 champion, is off in the first group at 0800 (1300 BST), while Woods tees off alongside fellow American Stewart Cink and India's Jeev Milkha Singh at 1352 (1852 BST).



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Augusta tee-off times
07 Apr 09 |  Golf


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