Stormy buildup to Masters classic

Overnight storms had Augusta National groundstaff scurrying to clean up debris on the course on Wednesday morning as players completed their preparations for the most hotly anticipated Masters in years.

Despite trees being uprooted, bunkers swamped and waters swollen in Rae's Creek, the traditional Par-Three contest got underway on schedule but was then called off as the bad weather returned in the late afternoon.

Declared joint winners were Padraig Harrington and Jonathan Byrd, thereby compromising their chances of winning on Sunday as no Par-Three winner has ever done the double since the nine-hole tournament was inaugurated in 1960.

With more rain and storms in the forecast for Thursday and Friday and falling temperatures predicted over the weekend, there was some trepidation over how the famed course will play.

Three-time former winner Phil Mickelson, for one, believes that the prevailing conditions over the next few days will be crucial in deciding who will win the 76th edition of the tournament.

"It seems that some of the planning I have made may go by the wayside. As soft as the golf course is, you can fire at a lot of the pins. The greens are soft," he said after sampling the course on Tuesday.

"I don't want to say they are slow, but it's just not the same Augusta. It's wet around the greens, and there's no fear of the course. You've got to attack it this week.

"Unless something changes, and I know they have SubAir (greens drying system) and hopefully they will be able to use it, but unless they change it, it's going to be a birdie fest."

Tiger Woods, installed as tournament favourite after his victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month ago ended a 28-month winless streak, agreed that the course was as spongy as he could recall in 17 previous Masters appearances.

"The golf course is a little bit wet out there. Obviously we got some pretty good rains here," he said after completing nine holes of practice on Tuesday.

"Today I played nine holes with Freddie (Couples) and Sean O'Hair and seven drives and had seven mud balls.

"So hopefully it will dry out, but I think the forecast is for more rain.

"It looks like it's going to be a great week, got a great field and really looking forward to it."

The return to top form of Woods and whether he can crown his revival with a fifth Masters title and 15th major triumph, nearly four years after his last, is just one of a tantalising array of plots and sub-plots on display this week.

Much has been made of the potential showdown between the 36-year-old Woods and 22-year-old Irishman Rory McIlroy, seen by many as the most exciting talent to emerge in the sport since Woods himself two decades ago.

McIlroy is back at Augusta National 12 months after the roller-coaster ride that saw him soar into a four-stroke lead going into the final round only for a back nine collapse of epic proportions left him in tears.

Two months later, he remarkably put it all behind him to win the US Open - his first Major - by an astonishing eight strokes, a domination not seen since Woods was in his youthful prime in 2000.

McIlroy says he can now look back on what happened last year, have a wry laugh to himself and try to learn from the experience.

"I learned a lot," he said. "One of the things I learned was that as a person and as a golfer I wasn't ready to win the Masters, wasn't ready to win a Major.

"Mentally, now I feel like if I get myself in a position (to win) again, I'll be able to approach it a lot better."

McIlroy is the poster boy of a three-pronged British challenge which also includes world number one Luke Donald and number three Lee Westwood, both of whom are sagging under the burden of never having won a Major.

Both bristled when it was suggested that the only show in town this week was the Woods-McIlroy faceoff.

"You know, Rory has never won here, Tiger has not won here since 2005. So I think everybody in this (press) room would have to be naive to think it is a two-horse race, wouldn't they," said Westwood, a runner-up here two years ago.

"There's more. I think Phil (Mickelson) might have a little bit of something to say about that. Luke (Donald) might. I might."

Other sub-plots see Mickelson seeking to match Woods with a fourth Masters win, Charl Schwartzel trying to become just the fourth player in Masters history to win back-to-back titles and a batch of young Americans out to make their breakthroughs.

The field is set at 96 following the withdrawal through injury of Dustin Johnson, with 50 players coming from outside of the United States.

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