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2011 MASTERS PREVIEW: Different feel in air this year at Augusta

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

AUGUSTA -- Since its inception in 1934, each edition of the Masters has had its own unique atmosphere leading up to the first of golf's four major tournaments.

With the 75th edition of the tournament set to tee off Thursday, the atmosphere at Augusta National for Tuesday's practice rounds and player news conferences were certainly different from this time last year.

While there was the usual strong media presence, it wasn't nearly the circus-like atmosphere of a year ago, when four-time champion Tiger Woods made his return to competitive golf after a self-imposed 20-week hiatus to deal with his well-documented domestic difficulties.

In fact, the 14-time majors champion isn't even considered a prohibitive favorite like he has been several times over the past decade, which is just fine by him.

"Doesn't matter," Woods said Tuesday. "You still have to play the golf tournament, right? We all have an opportunity. Everyone has the same opportunity as I do, and always has been. So, I've just got to go out there and play and see where it adds up."

If anyone is carrying the favorite's role this year, it may be defending champion Phil Mickelson.

In addition to claiming his third green jacket by finishing at 16-under par 272 in 2010, Mickelson also comes into this year's tournament on a roll after winning the Houston Open by three strokes over Scott Verplank and former University of Georgia golfer Chris Kirk last weekend.

But Mickelson doesn't necessarily feel any different than any other year at The Masters.

Besides, as Mickelson pointed out, this year's tournament may be more wide-open than ever in terms of legitimate threats to win.

"I've always felt that this tournament has a lot of players that are playing well heading in, that guys gear their game for this event," Mickelson said. "And it can be one of the toughest tournaments to win because so many guys are playing well. And I think that as a player, I would never discount any single player that's in this field."

One player nobody is discounting is England's Lee Westwood.

Currently ranked No. 2 in the world, Westwood is hoping this year will be different, and that he will finally break through in winning a major after posting seven different Top-5 finishes, including runner-up to Mickelson at Augusta last year.

"Yeah, I feel like everything's coming together," Westwood said. "I think the start of this year has been a little bit slow, partly to do with being injured the second half of last year. ... And I'm generally a pretty slow starter most years.

"But this year, I've shot some good scores and played some good golf at times. So, you know, if it all clicks into place this week, I know if I'm on my game, it's good enough to win."

Current No. 1 in the world Martin Kaymer of Germany is another potential challenger.

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NOTES: The groupings and tee times for the first two rounds Thursday and Friday were announced Tuesday.

Among the highlights:

*** Woods is grouped with current World No. 5 Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland and Australia's Robert Allenby. They will tee off at 10:41 a.m. Thursday and 1:48 p.m. Friday. Mickelson, Geoff Ogilvy and amateur champ Peter Uihlein will tee off at 1:48 p.m. on Thursday, then at 10:30 a.m. on Friday.

*** Two of the tour's hottest golfers over the past year with Georgia ties -- former Georgia Tech standout Matt Kuchar and former Georgia star Bubba Watson -- both drew strong international playing partners. Kuchar will tee off with Kaymer and Westwood at 10:30 a.m. Thursday morning and 1:26 p.m. on Friday afternoon. Meanwhile, Watson will play with Paul Casey of England and Edoardo Molinari of Italy, with a 1:15 p.m. tee time Thursday and 9:57 a.m. tee time Friday.

*** Duluth resident, former Georgia Tech standout and 2009 British Open champion Stewart Cink will play with Jim Furyk and Yuta Ikeda of Japan beginning at 1:37 p.m. Thursday and 10:08 a.m. Friday.