Injured Tiger Woods thrilled golf fans with a mere practice round at Augusta National, but other elite golfers who have competed since November 2020 definitely will try to win the 86th Masters.
The first men's major tournament of the year tees off Thursday at Augusta National with a host of in-form contenders, but attention was riveted upon 46-year-old Woods after he played 18 holes at the iconic Georgia course on Tuesday.
The 15-time major champion, ranked 944th in the world, suffered severe right leg injuries in a February 2021 car crash. He has not played an official event since the 2020 Masters, played in November due to Covid-19.
Woods tested his fitness to walk the hilly course in a practice round with son Charlie and pal Justin Thomas, the 2017 PGA Championship winner.
He was listed among the field on the tournament website, but had not confirmed as of Friday whether he would play in next week's Masters, which will mark the 25th anniversary of his first triumph there.
Hospitalized for weeks and unable to walk for months, Woods has been rehabilitating with plans to return to elite golf on a part-time basis, although he has given no timetable when that might happen.
"To have Tiger there would be phenomenal," four-time major winner Rory McIlroy said. "It just adds to the event. Anything Tiger Woods does in the game of golf is heightened whenever he's there. I mean, it would be awesome for him to be there."
Woods said in December, and again in February, that he was "a long way away" from playing at a high level, noting he felt fortunate to have survived the crash and with both legs.
However, the prospect of a Woods comeback overshadowed the certainty of players seeking a green jacket who have been competing for months.
McIlroy, who won his 20th career PGA title last October in Las Vegas, will once again attempt to complete a career Grand Slam by winning the Masters.
He has six top-10 finishes at Augusta National, where he missed the cut last year but tuned up Tuesday himself.
"There are some changes on 11 and 15," McIlroy warned. "Three new greens – 3, 13 and 17 – are all brand new greens. I just wanted to go there and just see that for myself, do a little bit of a scouting trip that I haven't really done the last couple years.
"It was good to be there, good to see the place. I feel like I've already done most of my work, which is a nice feeling. For the most part, my game feels good."
American Scottie Scheffler will be playing his first event since becoming world number one by winning the WGC World Match Play Championship.
He won at Phoenix and Bay Hill also, his first three PGA titles coming in the past two months.
And those breakthrough titles, Scheffler says, better prepare him to win a major championship after three top-10 efforts in 2021.
"Once you actually accomplish that goal, it's a little bit different," Scheffler said. "I definitely felt a little different on the course at Bay Hill in that final round. I used that experience from Phoenix where I did make a lot of mistakes on Sunday and I was still able to get the job done."
American Collin Morikawa, the 2021 British Open and 2020 PGA Championship winner, says there's no formula to lifting a major trophy.
"There's no secret recipe for winning them. You just have to be ready to go win a major," Morikawa said. "You have to embrace that you're going to be playing against the best in the world.
"You just can't make as many mistakes. When you do make mistakes, they're just that blown up when you're out on a major course, especially on a Sunday and you feel that pressure. You know what's at stake."
Third-ranked Morikawa, a top-five finisher in four of eight starts this season, is happy with the Masters looming.
"I feel like my golf game is there," he said. "I just need to be mentally making sure I go through every process when I'm out there."
Several players have been winning and contending ahead of the Masters.
Defending champion Hideki Matsuyama of Japan won last October in Japan and January's Sony Open in Hawaii, although he faces fitness questions as his title defense arrives after pulling out of the Texas Open with a neck injury.
World number six Cameron Smith of Australia, a 2020 Masters runner-up, won March's Players Championship and January's Tournament of Champions.
American Sam Burns, ranked 11th ahead of his first Masters, won his third title in 10 months at the Valspar Championship in March.
World number eight Dustin Johnson, whose last US title came at the 2020 Masters, likes where his game is at.
"I'm swinging it well, hitting my putts on line," he said. "So feeling really good heading into the Masters."
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