Masters 2011: Mickelson primed for Masters defence

By Rob Hodgetts BBC Sport at Augusta
Phil Mickelson
Mickelson is ahead of Woods in the rankings for the first time since 1997

Phil Mickelson will start as hot favourite to defend his title when the 75th Masters begins on Thursday.

The 40-year-old three-time champion won last week and has 13 top-10 finishes in his 18 appearances at Augusta.

Before Mickelson's win in Houston, the year's first major was being billed as one of the most open in recent years.

Europe has six players in the world's top 10, including the top-two ranked players - Germany's Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood of England.

The last European to win at Augusta was Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999 but in Kaymer and Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell, the continent has the reigning USPGA and US Open champion respectively.

England's Luke Donald has an impressive record at Augusta with a best of third place in 2005, and has won in the United States this season - while countryman Justin Rose has led at some stage on all four days of the tournament and also brings some confidence from recent third and fifth places in PGA Tour events.

Former world number one Tiger Woods, now ranked seventh, is seeking a fifth Green Jacket but has been struggling for form after last year's divorce and programme of swing changes under new coach Sean Foley.

Woods, though, was fourth on his reappearance last year following a spell out of the game after a sex scandal and there are some, including former coach Hank Haney, who think he will feature prominently this week because of his knowledge and liking for the course.

Woods's last victory at Augusta was in 2005 and he won the last of his 14 major titles in 2008.

A new breed of young Americans are also capturing the headlines for their big-hitting, putting prowess and confident approach.

Nick Watney was seventh last year and is the form player on the PGA Tour, while Dustin Johnson went close in both the USPGA and US Open last year and has also had some good results this season.

Tiger Woods
Woods is confident of winning his fifth Masters title

Bubba Watson lost in a play-off to Kaymer in the 2010 USPGA but left-handers are thought to have an advantage on certain holes at Augusta and could also feature.

"I've always felt that this tournament has a lot of players that are playing well heading in," said world number three Mickelson.

"Guys gear their game for this 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 in the field."

But Mickelson is the name at the top of most people's shortlist to add to his Masters tally following last year's emotional win, which came a little under a year after his wife and mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I have enjoyed and felt great on this golf course even before I won here," said Mickelson, who also triumphed in 2004 and 2006.

"It's something I've come to love with all my heart and I feel very fortunate and it means a lot to me to have won here and be able to come back and be a part of this tournament."

Woods, who has been passed by Mickelson in the rankings for the first time since 1997, discounted the fact that he had lost the favourite tag.

"Doesn't matter," he said. "You still have to play the golf tournament, right? We all have an opportunity. So just go out and play and see where it adds up."

Woods now finds himself at something of a crossroads in his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major titles but remains adamant that it is still his goal.

"I absolutely want to do it," he said. "That's the benchmark and gold standard in this sport."

Of his swing changes, Woods said: "It's taken a long time to develop the patterns and know what the fixes are. I'm finally starting to shape the ball both ways and being able to fix it if I don't. It's just a totally different philosophy from what I was doing before."

Mickelson will begin his defence at 1348 local time (1848 BST) in the company of Australian Geoff Ogilvy and US amateur Peter Uihlein.

Woods tees off at 1041 ET (1541 BST) with McDowell and Australian Robert Allenby, while Westwood will resume his quest for a maiden major title two groups earlier at 1019 ET (1519 BST) with Kaymer and another in-form American, Matt Kuchar.

Westwood, who also finished second in last year's Open Championship, admitted his recent reconnaissance trip to Augusta was a chance to put last year's near miss behind him.

"I got rid of all the memories a week last Sunday," said Westwood, who has rectified some recent putting problems after a lesson with his dad. "If it all clicks into place this week, I know if I'm on my game, it's good enough to win."

The weather for the week is set to be fine with increasingly warm temperatures in contrast to the storms and high winds that hampered practice on Tuesday. The drying conditions should make the course play fast, evening up the perceived disadvantage for the shorter hitters.

"You don't have to be a big hitter to win here," said Mickelson, who has been having treatment for arthritis.

"You have to play away from your weaknesses to your strengths. So if you're not the longest hitter your strength needs to be wedge play, take advantage of the par fives and miss the par fours in spots where your short game can give you an advantage."

Four-time champion Arnold Palmer, 81, and record six-time winner Nicklaus, 71, will perform the honorary starter duties at 0740 ET (1240 BST) before the first group of Jonathan Byrd, England's Ross Fisher and Sean O'Hair get the tournament under way at 0745 ET (1245 BST).

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