Big field of contenders sparks Masters excitement

Augusta: Augusta National`s trademark back-nine drama in the final round of the Masters could reach epic heights Sunday with a field that offers no clear favorite and several rising young stars.

Rory McIlroy and defending champion Adam Scott squandered late leads last month to lose, while reigning British Open champion Phil Mickelson and Australian star Jason Day are coming off injuries.

World number one Tiger Woods will miss the Masters for the first time after back surgery to fix a pinched nerve.

Mix in a record 24 first-time Masters starters, including recent three-time winners Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed, and one of golf`s grandest stages is set for a showdown to decide the green jacket like few seen in recent times.

"To feel that energy and to hear the roars and be a part of what`s happening that final nine holes, it`s the greatest experience for a professional golfer," said three-time Masters winner Mickelson.

While the absence of 14-time major champion Woods could dim the mystique for some, it`s unlikely to steal the spotlight come Sunday afternoon.

"Having Tiger in a tournament definitely creates more buzz, more of an atmosphere," McIlroy said. "But no matter who is in contention or who is going to win, the Masters always provides a great finish.

"There`s going to be a worthy winner and it`ll produce a lot of excitement whether Tiger is in the mix or not."

McIlroy led the first three rounds in 2011 before a last-nine collapse left him sharing 15th, still his best finish at the Masters.

"I`d just like to get into contention again and have a chance to win the tournament," McIlroy said. "Any time you drive through the gates here, it sort of lights the fire up inside you."

Leading contenders offered a wide range of choices for how many players they expect were true challengers for the title.

"If the course plays firm and fast conditions, I think you`re looking at less than a dozen," Mickelson said. "But if it doesn`t, I think you`re looking at almost half the field."

There have been 15 first-time major winners in the past 19 majors and 19 different winners in the past 21 majors, only McIlroy and Mickelson winning twice in that span.

Scott said that as the era dominated by Woods has faded, his last major title having come in 2008, a wider set of champions has emerged.

"It has been easy to look at who is the guy to beat. I think that scope has kind of broadened now," Scott said. "There are a lot of guys with the talent and the form that aren`t necessarily standing out above others, but on their week, they are going to be tough to beat.

"There`s probably a list of 20 guys you could go through here, but if they play well, they are going to be there on Sunday at some point. That`s how I see it this week. I`d like to think my name is one of those guys."

Three players can dethrone Woods from atop the rankings this week. Day must win. Swedish world number three Henrik Stenson must finish in a two-way share of second or better and second-ranked Scott needs at least a two-way share of third.

Many of this year`s crop of first-timers have said they see no reason one of them could not duplicate the 1979 feat of Fuzzy Zoeller to win in his first Augusta National start, the only man since the second Masters in 1935 to do so.

"Confident is good," Stenson said. "But then, there`s always a chance that there might be one or two surprises around the corner here, that`s for sure."

Scott is motivated to win with the top ranking seen as a byproduct of success.

"I feel like my game is at a point where if I play well, I have got a chance to win this tournament. And the follow on from that would be world number one."

"If I have a chance to win, I`ll be just focusing on that," Stenson said. "The other thing would be a nice bonus that comes with it, but I`m more concerned about winning tournaments than setting new records for myself."

Reigning US Open champion Justin Rose likes his chances after his US Open win at Merion last June, putting himself with McIlroy and Spain`s Sergio Garcia atop Europe`s charge.

"It can be any week for any of us. There are a lot of great players that are due," Rose said.

"Always you can have the unknowns that can happen, but I would say 15 guys that are pretty strong favorites.

"Rory and Sergio are probably the two Europeans that will have the best chance along with myself."

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