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Cast and Plot Familiar in Annual Stroke Opera

Advance: Woods is favored, with Els close behind in popularity polls, but the new breed should be heard from as well.


AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Masters begins today at storied Augusta National, with the usual backdrop of blazing azaleas, stately pines, glimmering ponds and plot lines longer than the ones in front of the merchandise tent.

In no particular order, here are the stories to follow for the next four days, until it's over on Sunday or Rae's Creek flows backward, whichever comes first.

* Can Tiger Woods repeat? Will he hit driver-wedge into the par fives? Will Masters officials suddenly decide to erect a driving-range fence across the fairways?

* Can Ernie Els win a major that isn't the U.S. Open? He has won that one twice, in 1994 and last year at Congressional, where the secret is playing patiently (which is sort of the deal around here too).

* Can John Daly come all the way back? He has already won two majors, but he hasn't won anything since the 1995 British Open and has spent more time in rehabilitation than on the winner's stand.

* Can the Generation Next surge continue? This means, if a young star such as Justin Leonard, Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood or David Duval wins, does he then plan a champion's dinner of milk and cookies?

* Can somebody from Over There win? It has been, what, two whole years since Nick Faldo won?

And so on. As should be expected, much of the pre-tournament attention has been showered on Woods. At least there's a good reason, after his 18-under-par, 12-shot victory in last year's Masters, both records.

Many regard Woods as the favorite. Woods himself said his game is superior to what it was last year at this time, but the fact remains that his last six competitive rounds were all above par.

"The overall package is better this year," Woods said. "Even with my 73-77 [third and fourth rounds] at Bay Hill, I still have the lowest stroke average on tour. So that does say something.

"I've been close to playing great golf."

According to Jack Nicklaus, Woods may not be required to play great golf in order to win. Woods is the easy choice to win a second green jacket, Nicklaus said.

"There's so many good golfers [but] the difference is his normal, game, in my opinion, is superior on this golf course because of the length, the elevation that he hits the golf ball, the fabulous short game that he's got," Nicklaus said.

"All of it just blends to this golf course. And I think he has more advantage here than he does anyplace else."

Woods' advantage was certainly true last year, but Woods' length and imagination around the greens are going to be tested by Els, his newest protagonist for golf's lead role in the not-so-distant future.

It was Els who blasted Woods and Davis Love III when they played the last 36 holes together at Bay Hill. It's Els who can come closest to matching Woods' length off the tee. It's Els who might be a more consistent putter than Woods.

But it's Woods who has a Masters title and Els who doesn't.

"You can't control what Tiger Woods or Davis Love or anybody else does on the golf course," Els said. "If they're in the sun, there's nothing much you can do about it."

Speaking of sun, there's a chance we won't be seeing much of it today. Weather forecasters are predicting a chance of rain about as much as others are predicting a Woods victory.

Few are predicting a Daly victory, although that surely would shake things up. Daly has been so relaxed this week, he looks as if he could nod off while strumming his beloved guitar.

Mickelson comes into the Masters equally relaxed, which ought to help him in his chase for a first major title because he isn't attracting a lot of notice.

Westwood is a different matter. The 24-year-old from Worksop, England, won his first PGA Tour event last week at New Orleans, which means he's playing pretty well.

At his relatively young age, Westwood already is an established European PGA Tour star, and under Faldo's tutelage, served notice at the Ryder Cup he is an important international player.

Adding all the young guys up, Tom Watson said he was impressed.

"I think the whole class, this is the best generation of golfers coming along in a long time," Watson said. "I mean a long time.

"You've got Els and Woods at the pinnacle up there. You have a lot of quality players right beneath them. And it's really an incredible class of golf."

Isn't it nice of the Masters to give them all a place to show off? Beginning today, we get a chance to check their progress.

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