- Associated Press - Thursday, April 7, 2011

AUGUSTA, GA. (AP) - Graeme McDowell skipped one off the famous pond at the 16th hole, the ball dancing along the surface until it rammed the bank on the far side.

Back into the water it went.

“Ohhhhhhh!” the crowd groaned collectively.

The U.S. Open champion started to walk toward the flag, until the pleas of the Augusta National patrons stopped him in his tracks. He dropped another ball, took another whack. This time, it skidded one, two, three, four times _ and hopped onto the green.

The gallery roared. McDowell pumped his right fist. Everyone had a glorious time on a magnificent spring day.

Now, though, it’s time to get serious.

The Masters was set to begin Thursday morning with one more unique tradition _ Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus hitting ceremonial shots shortly after sunrise _ before the opening threesome teed it up for real.

Jonathan Byrd, Ross Fisher and Sean O’Hair were first up, though most eyes will surely be on two guys who start later in the day: Defending champ Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.

Together, they’ve combined to win seven green jackets, including six of the last 10. That might be about their only similarity at the moment.

Mickelson is coming off a three-stroke win at Houston, his first triumph since last year’s Masters and a sign that his game is peaking at just the right time.

“I was able to kind of see the shot a little bit better and hold that picture in my mind throughout the swing and pull it off,” he said.

Woods, on the other hand, hasn’t won since an ugly sex scandal ended his marriage and tarnished his image. He’s in the midst of another complex swing change, still searching for the dominance that used to make him an automatic favorite at every event he entered.

For the first time since 1998, Woods is NOT the Augusta favorite. Mickelson is the bookies’ choice at 13-2, while his longtime rival is the second pick at 10-1.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Woods, mired in the longest winless streak of his career _ 20 events over the past 17 months. “You still have to play the golf tournament, right? We all have an opportunity. Everyone has the same opportunity as I do.”

Indeed, this is far from a two-man show.

Story Continues →