DULUTH, Georgia: Barring a further deterioration in his father's health, holder Tiger Woods will tee off at next week's US Masters as the overwhelming favourite to win the title for the fifth time.
The world No 1 is ideally suited to the par-72 Augusta National layout which has been stretched to a formidable 7,445 yards for this year's tournament, making it the second longest course in major championship history.
Six new tees have been added since Woods clinched his fourth green jacket last April and the fairways on the first, seventh and 11th holes have been narrowed by the addition of trees.
Apart from the re-grassing of the seventh green, the slick and heavily contoured putting surfaces at Augusta are unchanged and still place a heavy premium on a precise short game.
All of this, with the exception of the tighter fairways, will suit 10-time major winner Woods from next Thursday.
Never known for the accuracy of his driving, he is among the biggest hitters in the game, has a superbly creative short game and is arguably the best putter in history from inside 15 feet.
Since making his Masters debut as an amateur in 1995, he has become well acquainted with the nuances of Augusta National.
"I feel pretty good at Augusta," Woods said earlier this year. "I know how to prepare the way I like to play the tournament.
"It helps that I have gained a lot of knowledge from members and former champions I have played practice rounds with.
"It's hard to believe I've won four times in one of the greatest tournaments in the world. This is something that every kid dreams of playing in, and hopefully one day even winning it, if you're lucky enough.
"To have an opportunity to have won four already is the thrill of a lifetime, just to be associated with those great champions and Jack and Arnold," added the 30-year-old Woods, whose father Earl has been battling prostate cancer since 1998.
Jack Nicklaus has won a record six Masters titles while Palmer has triumphed there four times.
While the lengthening of Augusta National by 155 yards since last year has effectively put the title beyond the reach of the shorter and some of the medium-range hitters, Woods has another advantage over the rest of the field.
Having spent the last two-and-a-half years revamping his swing for the second time since he turned professional in 1996, he feels as ready as he can be for the challenge of his 12th successive Masters start.
"I don't have as far to go to get ready for the Masters this year," said Woods, who won his first green jacket in 1997 by a record margin of 12 strokes.
"Last year I had a long way to go. I had a lot of different things I needed to fix to be ready for Augusta.
"This year, the list has been a lot shorter, and the changes aren't as big. They're real small, real finite. From that standpoint, I've got a head start on last year."
Woods, who won last year's Masters in a playoff with fellow American Chris DiMarco, has also re-established a psychological hold over his closest rivals in the game.
Since the start of the season, he has triumphed three times in seven starts. World No 2 Vijay Singh, third-ranked Retief Goosen and 2004 Masters champion Phil Mickelson, the world No 4, have yet to visit the 2006 winner's circle.
So has fifth-ranked Ernie Els, who has finished in the top six at Augusta National five times in the last six years.
Eight-time European No 1 Colin Montgomerie summed up the 'Tiger effect' during last month's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship at La Costa.
"This major winners business is difficult because Tiger takes two of them," he said. "So that only leaves two for everyone else.
"If you give one to Phil, Ernie, Vijay or Retief, that only leaves one left every year. If you look at it statistically, that's what should happen and what does happen."
Whether or not the Woods aura of dominance is quite back to the level of 1999 and 2000 is open to debate. Next week's Masters will go a long way to providing an answer.
Source: China Daily