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It could be a big weekend for golf

Published April 06. 2012 05:01PM

Golf's popularity peaked a few years back, when Tiger Woods was rewriting record books.

If the sport is ever going to regain that level of attention, this weekend could be when it starts.

The greatest tournament of the year started yesterday and the stage seems to be set for one of the best Masters we've seen in years. Storylines abound and more will surely be created over the next three days.

At the top of the list, of course, is Tiger's reemergence. His well-documented struggles on and off the course look to be behind him.

The former world No. 1 is getting the hang of his new swing under coach Sean Foley. His win at Bay Hill two weeks ago, his first PGA Tour win in 30 months, proved he's on his way back.

The big question is how far back will he come. To expect a return of the Tiger of the late 1990s and early 2000s could be asking a little too much. But his ultimate career goal is to win at least 18 majors, the record held by Jack Nicklaus.

If Tigers plays well or wins this weekend, that goal will look a lot more realistic for the 36-year old.

While Tiger will remains be the top story, Rory McIlroy is not far behind.

The 23-year old Irishman blew a chance to win the green jacket last year when he let a four-stroke lead slip away on the first 10 holes of his final round.

But he handled the adversity with maturity and class then crushed the field in his very next major, winning the US Open by eight shots last June.

In his pre-tournament press conference from Augusta earlier this week, McIlroy made jokes about last year's collapse and talked about how he wasn't ready to win a major then. He needed to learn from his mistakes and did.

He surely has a long and successful career in front of him. This week's performance will be one more piece of evidence that he's exorcised the demons from last year.

The big question with McIlroy is whether or not he's the next Tiger. He has the game and demeanor to dominate golf.

The media is already trying to make this year's event a Tiger vs. Rory showcase while Mickelson, who has won three Masters titles since 2004, is coming in a bit more under the radar than the past few years at Augusta.

Mickelson, who owns four major titles, is still playing well after turning 40 and battling psoriatic arthritis. He loves the Masters and typically plays the course well. But at 41, how many more major titles can he possibly win? This weekend could be a good indication of just how much Lefty has left in the tank.

It was Mickelson that pointed out during a press conference this week that this is one of the deepest Masters fields in years.

Several European players are still looking for their first major titles, including the world's current No. 1 Luke Donald, as well as first-round leader Lee Westwood.

Australians Jason Day and Adam Scott both finished in the top five last year and hope to become the first Masters champ from their continent.

And then there are the young Americans. Hunter Mahan currently leads that list after his win last week in Houston. But PGA champ Keegan Bradley and others like Rickie Fowler and Bill Haas have shown they're ready to take over as the sport's new faces.

There's hardly room to talk about defending champ Charl Schwartzel, who seemingly came out of nowhere to win last year. He became the first player in history to win by birdieing the last four holes.

While Tiger, Rory and Phil will get most of the attention of the first few days, Sunday could be anyone's day this year.

This could turn out to be one of the greatest Masters Tournaments in a long, long time. The sport has more than just big names. It also has as many talented players as it ever has and they're from all over the globe.

It's a perfect recipe to take the sport back to where it was 10 years ago.

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