Stars Converge at Augusta National

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- If this is a golden era, then it starts with a green jacket.
 
Everyone has been pointing to the Masters since the first day of the new year, when it became obvious that golf was loaded with talent at the top, muddled only by debate over how many players belonged in the conversation.
 
The Big Three?
 
Ernie Els
Ernie Els is the only member of the 'Big Four' who hasn't won the Masters.
That would be Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els -- in that order, at the moment -- because each has won at least three major championships and because they are so tightly bunched atop the world ranking that any of them could go to No. 1 with a victory at Augusta National.
 
Phil Mickelson makes it the Big Four, and it's tough to leave him out of the mix.
 
The defending Masters champion came within five shots of a chance to win the Grand Slam last year. And while he tapered off at the end of the season, Lefty again came out firing on the West Coast by winning back-to-back weeks with audacious scores -- a 60 in Phoenix and a course-record 62 at Spyglass Hill, one of the toughest tracks on tour.
 
Some would argue for a Big Five to include U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen, the stoic South African who doesn't make a peep except when he's beating the best players with an unflappable game. Whatever the number, they indeed are big. And they all converge on Augusta National this week for the 69th Masters Tournament, which has all the trappings of a free-for-all on a stage that rarely lacks for drama.
 
'I can't remember a time when golf was in this position, where you've got that many guys right at the top of the world rankings and playing consistently well going into the big start of the year,' Thomas Bjorn said. 'It's good fun to watch. It's interesting for the game. It's healthy for the game.'
 
Adding to the anticipation is that Augusta National, built for power with changes to the course over the last couple of years, has a habit of making sure the cream rises.
 
Mickelson had to birdie five of the least seven holes last year to beat Els. Woods won his fourth straight major in 2001 at Augusta National by holding off Mickelson and David Duval. Thirty years ago, it was Jack Nicklaus making that 40-foot putt on the 16th to beat Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf.
 
'It reminds me of the glory days of the '70s when we had almost 12 players that were just guns,' Miller said. 'Guys were in their prime, and they were tough down the stretch. We really haven't had that on the world golf scene. You've got so many top stars now. It's almost impossible to pick who's going to be the gun. It's an exciting time.'
 
Every era has its conglomerate of stars, so the concept of a Big Three (or any number) is nothing new.
 
Harry Vardon, James Braid and J.H. Taylor were the original Great Triumvirate in golf, and the United States produced its own cast of characters with Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson in the 1940s and 1950s. Then came the original 'Big Three' with Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. And for international flavor, there was Nick Faldo, Nick Price and Greg Norman ominating the early part of the 1990s.
 
The common thread was a green jacket, at least as long as Augusta National has been around.
 
Hogan or Snead won the Masters five out of six times during the early 1950s. Palmer, Nicklaus and Player combined to win seven straight green jackets through 1966. Faldo won three Masters between 1989 and 1996, culminating with his shocking comeback against Norman.
 
Singh, Woods and Mickelson have won four of the last five Masters. The exception was Mike Weir, one of several players (Padraig Harrington, David Toms, Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott) who are on the cusp of joining the elite in golf. Even so, the top five players stand out.
 
'Those guys are playing at a different level than most of us,' Scott said.
 
For the longest time, Woods had that distinction all to himself. He won three green jackets in the first six Masters he played as a pro, eight majors by the time he was 26. But the former No. 1 player comes to Augusta National without a major in his last 10 tries, matching the longest drought of his career.
 
Woods had just begun to change his swing last year when he tied for 22nd at 2-over 290, 11 shots behind the winner. All three of those figures were career worsts at Augusta National.
 
No one knows what to expect from Woods this time around. He has won twice, including a wonderful duel at Doral when he rallied to beat Mickelson in the final round, but he has been wild with his driver and errant with his putter in the two weeks coming into the Masters.
 
Most importantly, he now has competition. Nicklaus, whose 18 majors represent the record Woods is chasing, saw this coming even when it looked as though Woods had no rival.
 
'He's certainly going to have increased competition that he hasn't had in past years, that he seems to have more of now,' Nicklaus said recently. 'You heard me a couple of years ago. A lot of competition hadn't even shown up yet -- young kids coming out, or guys playing against him who will raise the level of their golf game or disappear.
 
'I think Tiger by far is still the most talented,' he said. 'His future depends on his desire.'
 
Singh has won nine times since the last Masters, ending Woods' five-year reign at No. 1 in the world. His only victory this season was the Sony Open, where he birdied the final hole at Waialae to beat Els by one shot.
 
Els picked up two victories in the Middle East, at Dubai and Qatar, although his global travels make some wonder if he has given himself enough rest coming to the place that now haunts him.
 
The South African had one arm in the green jacket last year, closing with two eagles and a 67 that looked like it might be enough until Mickelson hit the putt heard 'round the world on the 18th to beat him.
 
The rest of the year wasn't much better for the Big Easy. He shot 80 in the final group at the U.S. Open, lost in a four-hole playoff at the British Open to Todd Hamilton, and bogeyed the last hole of the PGA Championship to finish one shot out of another playoff.
 
'I'm a different guy from where I was last August,' Els said. 'As an athlete, you just pull yourself up. Who knows? You either crash, or you celebrate.'
 
Els remembers what it was like when he was No. 1 in the late 1990s, after winning his second U.S. Open. Woods had just begun to blossom. Davis Love III appeared to be in full stride. Mickelson was contending in majors and dazzling fans with his short game.
 
But, as he surveys the landscape now, Els says there is no comparison.
 
'I'm a different player than I was back then,' he said. 'I think we're all different now. I think we're all playing at a level that we weren't at in those days. Our records speak for themselves. I've won over 50 tournaments now, and Vijay has won over 30. We've got more experience, we've done different things.
 
'Maybe it's stronger now than it was back in the late '90s.'
 
It might be the strongest it has been in some 30 years, when the top stars brought their game to Augusta National and tried to settle the score at the Masters.
 
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