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Originally published Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at 8:34 PM

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Two stars and a wide-open field ready to take on Augusta National

Tiger Woods couldn't see the green through the trees, though that was only a minor obstacle. He choked up on a 5-wood and played a sweeping...

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods couldn't see the green through the trees, though that was only a minor obstacle. He choked up on a 5-wood and played a sweeping draw around the pines, over the water and onto the back of the green.

As he approached the Sarazen Bridge to the 15th green Wednesday, the grandstand rumbled when fans suddenly rose in unison to see him walk by. Some of them held cameras as high as they could, clicked and hoped for the best.

Woods is worth watching at the Masters for all the right reasons.

All it took was one win at Bay Hill two weeks ago for Woods to even remotely resemble the guy who once dominated golf. He won by five shots, and, just like that, was elevated to the favorite at Augusta National.

"Everything is headed in the right direction at the right time," Woods said.

But he's not the only star of this Masters.

Rory McIlroy has all the traits of the heir apparent — an easy swing that produces enormous power, a U.S. Open title at age 22, a tennis star for a girlfriend and an engaging personality — something that Woods does not. In his last 12 tournaments, McIlroy finished third or better eight times, including two wins and a brief stay at No. 1 in the world.

"I'm in a great place," McIlroy said. "I feel like my golf game is in great shape."

There is so much anticipation about this clash of generations, it's as if they were the only two players competing for a green jacket, much like the days of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Far from it.

"There probably hasn't been a Masters with more legitimate chances," Geoff Ogilvy said. "I can understand people seeing this as a two-man race, but it's never been further from the truth. There are more horses in this race than ever before."

Luke Donald returned to No. 1 in the world three weeks ago by winning at Innisbrook. He is one of eight players among the top 20 in the world who have won this year, a list that includes Woods and McIlroy, along with Hunter Mahan (twice), Steve Stricker, Justin Rose and Phil Mickelson, a threat at Augusta even when he's not playing well.

"And you've got a guy like Keegan Bradley," Ogilvy said, referring to the PGA champion who won the first major he played. "Nobody ever talked about a Masters rookie with a chance. There's more people in the conversation, isn't there?"

One conversation that was kept short Wednesday was Masters chairman Billy Payne refusing to discuss the all-male membership at Augusta National. The topic returned this year because IBM appointed Virginia Rometty its CEO, and the last four chief executives of Big Blue were invited to be members.

"All issues of membership are now and have been historically subject to the private deliberations," Payne said. Despite a few more attempts — including a tense moment when Payne cut off a series of questions by saying, "Thank you" — the focus at Augusta quickly shifted back to golf.

Storms dumped 1 ½ inches of rain on the course before dawn and toppled a few trees. Another storm arrived in the afternoon and cut short the Par 3 Contest, along with making Augusta National even softer. Padraig Harrington and Jonathan Byrd were declared co-winners at 5 under.

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