|Photograph from Wikipedia Commons|
The Masters brings the best out of the best and always has done. Augusta National is a course that separates the men from the boys, although it is more difficult than ever to distinguish the difference.
It isn't hard to differentiate in a literal sense; 14-year-old Chinese prodigy Tianlang Guan will play alongside two-time champion Ben Crenshaw who is 47 years his senior. However in golfing terms, despite Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson being the three favourites, the Green Jacket is there for the taking.
Major championships are becoming increasingly tough to predict, Ernie Els' romantic Open win last July halted a run of nine consecutive first-time major winners. Although Rory McIlroy claimed his second major win in two years with his emphatic victory at the USPGA and Tiger Woods has won three times this season en route to world number one, there are a whole host of players hopeful of conquering Augusta.
Martin Laird's final-day 63 last weekend ended an unbeaten start to the PGA Tour season for the Americans, and there are plenty of home players in with a shout this week other than the obvious two.
A new young breed of big-hitting, imaginative and stylish golfers are emerging from the US and are starting to re-establish their country's dominance in the sport. Bubba Watson's thrilling win last year, that culminated in one of the all-time great Masters shots, is evidence of this, while Webb Simpson's US Open victory that followed proves the point even more.
Even though both Watson and Simpson have failed to win on tour since their major breakthroughs, plenty of other Americans look in excellent shape.
26-year-old Keegan Bradley took the golfing world by storm when he won the 2011 USPGA on his major championship debut and has started this season in brilliant form. He now has a WGC title to his name and backed up his USPGA win with a top three finish last August. Top 10s in each of his last four tournaments make him one of the form men that will walk up Magnolia Lane on Thursday.
Matt Kuchar is yet to win a major, but has spent over 40 weeks in the world's top ten and backed his impressive 2012 Players Championship win up with victory in the World Match-Play in February. The man he beat in that final, the winner from the year before, is Hunter Mahan, another player perfectly capable of breaking a major duck. His consistency from tee to green gives him a great shout of improving on a previous best of tied eighth in 2010.
Jason Dufner held the joint half-way lead last year and has had a great couple of years, his waggle becoming a familiar sight during the back end of big tournaments. He is a steady player who could hold on to a place at the top of the famous leaderboard for longer this time around.
There are older Americans who have not been at the top of their game as often as they would have liked recently, but who could still go all the way on Sunday. Steve Stricker has cut his schedule short and with the pressure seemingly off his shoulders could use his trusty putting stroke to finally master the undulations in the greens. Jim Furyk is another who could re-kindle a flickering flame, while 1992 champion Freddie Couples always seems inspired by the competition.
Despite the force that the stars and stripes hold, the internationals have many potential winners among their ranks. Angel Cabrera, Trevor Immelman and Charl Schwartzel have all won in the last five years, with Louis Oosthuizen going close last spring.
No European has won since Jose Maria Olazabal won his second title fourteen years ago, so maybe on the 30th anniversary of the late great Seve Ballesteros' last win, a Spanish winner in Sergio Garcia is the order of the day.
The Brits hold a strong contingent outside of McIlroy, perennial nearly-man Lee Westwood has moved to the US in a bid to quash his major woes and Justin Rose loves playing at Augusta and is on magnificent form, while battlers Graeme McDowell and Ian Poulter are always sure to put up a fight.
The Scandinavians will be out in force as well. Henrik Stenson will be looking to put an 18th hole quadruple bogey in the first round and a closing 81 last year behind him and Peter Hanson could go two better than his previous effort of tied for third. Dane Thorbjorn Olesen is a promising talent and Carl Pettersson is a reliable performer who challenged at the USPGA.
There are many others who have every right to believe they can spring a surprise, but what is certain is that this year's Masters is far from a fore-gone conclusion, despite the credentials of the 'big three'.
Photograph from Wikipedia Commons.