AUGUSTA, Ga., April 10 (UPI) -- Golf's first major event of the year begins Thursday with the center of attention being a player who has gone five years without winning a premier event.
Tiger Woods has built his golf game back to its former dominant level, has regained the No. 1 ranking in the world and has captured five PGA Tour titles over the last two seasons.
He has not won a major tournament, however, since he captured the 2008 U.S. Open in a dramatic playoff with Rocco Mediate while playing on a damaged leg.
That was the 14th of Woods' major championship wins, leaving him four away from equaling the record total achieved by Jack Nicklaus. It seemed then that Woods would easily surpass Nicklaus in the record book, but injuries as well as very public personal problems combined to make such an achievement less than certain.
With Woods now appearing as ready as ever to renew his pursuit of the Nicklaus mark, the Masters will get under way Thursday at the Augusta National Golf Club.
Forecasters called for a 30 percent of showers and thunderstorms during the afternoon Thursday and again Friday. The weather is expected to be ideal on the weekend.
There will be a field of 93 players on hand, including 19 former winners, 33 major championship titleholders in all, six amateurs and 17 competitors who have never played in the Masters before.
At the forefront, however, will be Woods, who will begin play at 10:45 a.m. EDT in a pairing with Luke Donald and Scott Piercy.
Woods has won the Masters four times and is one of three players (along with Nicklaus and Nick Faldo), to have captured the event in consecutive years.
Since Woods last won in Augusta in 2005, Phil Mickelson has won two of his three Masters, South Africans Trevor Immelman and Charl Schwartzel have captured the event and Bubba Watson has become one of the game's more familiar figures thanks to his victory in the tournament.
Watson is the defending champion, having defeated Louis Oosthuizen on the first hole of a sudden death playoff by hitting a spectacular recovery shot from the trees to the right of the 10th fairway.
Also in the spotlight this week will be golf's most recent major championship winner -- Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy ran away with the PGA Championship last August, soon ascended to the No. 1 ranking and appeared set to become the sport's dominant player.
A slow start to the 2013 season, however, plus the outstanding play from Woods, has reduced the attention paid to McIlroy.
He challenged for a victory, however, last week in San Antonio and could be ready to do so again this week. So could Mickelson, who has finished among the top five at the Masters 10 times.
Mickelson will not begin his first round until 1:30 p.m. Thursday, having been paired with Oosthuizen and Martin Kaymer. McIlroy will follow in the next group along with Keegan Bradley and Freddie Jacobson.