Augusta (Georgia): With an abundance of intriguing storylines this week`s Masters has the potential to be one of the most exciting of all time and Steve Stricker can already feel the heightened sense of anticipation among the azaleas and magnolias.
Past winners Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are in form and ready to claim another green jacket while U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy and fellow Briton Lee Westwood are poised to lead a strong European charge in the year`s opening major.
"No kidding," American world number five Stricker told Reuters on a glorious, sun-drenched afternoon at Augusta National. "This could be one of the most exciting Masters ever, for sure.
"Tiger is playing well, Phil is playing well. Charl Schwartzel, the defending champion, is playing well and Louis Oosthuizen is another very good South Africa player.
"There are so many good Americans too. Hunter (Mahan) is playing great too."
Mahan became the first player to record multiple wins on the PGA Tour this year with his one-stroke victory at the Houston Open on Sunday, a triumph that lifted him to fourth in the rankings.
"It`s really wide open this week but, as we all know, Tiger drives the media and the excitement level so everybody will be wondering how he`s going to be able to perform and how he will do here," said Stricker, a 12-times winner on the U.S. circuit.
Woods, a four-times champion at Augusta National, ended a 30-month title drought on the PGA Tour with victory at last month`s Arnold Palmer Invitational while Mickelson, a three-times Masters winner, clinched his 40th title on the U.S. circuit at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February.
While Woods has been installed as a 4-1 favourite by British bookmakers Ladbrokes for this week, many golf fans would love to see Northern Irishman McIlroy gain Masters redemption after his nightmarish meltdown in the final round last year.
Four strokes in front after 54 holes, McIlroy spectacularly collapsed as he closed with an ugly 80, but he immediately bounced back with a commanding victory at the U.S. Open two months later.
Though Stricker fully appreciates the captivating storylines ahead of Thursday`s opening round, he is more concerned with his own form after ending last year with a potentially serious injury.
The soft-spoken American had to withdraw from the BMW Championship in September due to neck and shoulder pain that caused weakness in his left hand and he has played a limited schedule this season while trying to strengthen the area.
"I`ve only played five times this year by design," the 46-year-old said. "I`ve been doing some physical therapy with some people at home and also on the road ... and it`s responding to all of that.
"My strength seems to be coming back a little bit in my hand and on my left side. It`s really not affecting how I play. It did at the end of last year but I haven`t seen that so far this year."
When Stricker tees off in this week`s Masters, where his best finish was a tie for sixth in 2009, he will be competing in successive events for only the second time this season.
"This is a test this week and I`m trying not to push it so much either," he said. "I have practised a little bit less and made sure that I`ve got a lot of strength with the left side going into the tournament rounds.
"I`m excited to be here. This is where you want to be in the first week of April. My game has gotten progressively better the last five or six years and I continue to improve," added the American who has won nine PGA Tour titles since he turned 40.
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