Continued from page 1

One of those guys is Rory McIlroy, though golf’s next big star hasn’t looked like one lately.

The 23-year-old from Northern Ireland won the PGA Championship in August for his second major _ more than Woods had at that age _ and then became the first player to win back-to-back tournaments with Woods in the field during the FedEx Cup playoffs a month later. He closed out the year by capturing the money title on the PGA and European tours, and he was the undisputed best player in golf.

That’s no longer the case. With so much scrutiny over swapping out all of his equipment under a massive Nike endorsement, McIlroy has languished. The missed cut in Abu Dhabi. A first-round loss in the Match Play Championship. Quitting after 27 holes of the Honda Classic. McIlroy added the Texas Open a week before the Masters, desperate to shake the rust out of his game and replace it with some confidence.

“All the pieces are there,” he said. “It’s about putting them all together. And once I put them together, I’ll be fine.”

Brandt Snedeker figured to pose a challenge when he went through a torrid stretch at the start of the year by finishing runner-up in consecutive weeks to Mickelson and Woods, and then winning at Pebble Beach. But he had to take a month off with sore ribs, and Snedeker missed the cut in two events since his return.

Mickelson is always a threat at Augusta _ another win would give him as many Masters titles as Woods _ but he is as unpredictable as ever.

Woods typically is the man to beat in the majors, and in that regard, nothing has changed.

It’s everything else about this Masters that is so different.

Along with speculating who will win a green jacket, there figures to be plenty of buzz about who’s already wearing one _ former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore. The club invited its first two women to join in the 80-year history.

“A joyous occasion,” chairman Billy Payne said in Augusta when the club took the unusual step of announcing its latest members.

There is rarely a dull moment in the first major of the year, a product of being played on the same course with its spring beauty and endless cheers at Amen Corner. Consider the last four years alone:

_ Angel Cabrera hit a shot off a tree, only for the ball to carom back into the fairway to keep his hopes alive in a playoff, which he won on the next hole in 2009.

_ Mickelson appeared stymied behind two pine trees on the 13th hole, blasted a 6-iron off the pine needles and between the trees, a signature moment in his one-shot win.

_ McIlroy had a four-shot lead going into the final round and hit a tee shot on the 10th hole that went behind the cabins, a spot he didn’t even know was there. He made triple bogey and shot 80, and Charl Schwartzel became the first Masters champion to finish with four straight birdies.

_ Louis Oosthuizen made the first albatross on the par-5 second hole _ it took 21.5 seconds for the ball to leave his 4-iron in the fairway and drop into the cup for a 2 _ only to lose the Masters in a playoff when Bubba Watson hit a shot that hooked 40 yards out of the trees and onto the 10th green.

Story Continues →