- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
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Azaleas. Dogwoods. More green than Kermit the Frog's family reunion. The purest golf tournament of the year.
The Masters Tournament commences on Thursday, with plenty of questions still left in doubt.
The Weekly 18 proffers the paramount issues at stake this week and proposes a few answers.
1. One for the thumb?
Throughout this week, you'll constantly be reminded it's the 10-year anniversary of Tiger Woods' historic first Masters victory, a 12-shot whirlwind that turned the golf world on its collective ear. Since first winning as a 21-year-old, Woods has added three more Green Jackets.
For those scoring at home, that's four Masters titles in 10 starts as a professional -- a .400 batting average that leaves him just two Augusta victories shy of Jack Nicklaus' career record. As in any tournament he plays, Tiger is the prohibitive favorite this week, fresh off a convincing victory at Doral in his most recent start. So much so, in fact, that the age old question of "Tiger or the field?" may likely have to come with odds if you were to choose the latter. Looking ahead, a Woods win this week will fuel the latest eruption of Tiger Mania, as he'll be chasing his second career Tiger Slam at Oakmont.
It's certainly not a given -- nothing in golf ever is -- but Woods certainly holds the edge in claiming lucky major victory No. 13 come Sunday evening.
2. The best defense?
Don't look now, but Phil Mickelson -- he of the previous 0-for-42 professional major record -- has turned into a cutthroat champion, with major titles in each of the past three years. The last (and first) time he won the Masters, Mickelson followed with a 10th-place finish -- certainly not bad, but his worst result at Augusta since 1998. How will he defend his latest Green Jacket? And how will not competing the week before -- the first time he hasn't done so since '98 -- affect his performance?
3. Who is this year's Couples or DiMarco?
They weren't sleeper picks ... and yet Couples and DiMarco weren't necessarily at the top of many experts' lists entering the last two Masters. Will another recognizable, but not top-ranked, player contend for the title? Of course, but the trick is figuring out who. Look for a guy who has made the trip to Augusta more than a few times and already has seen a considerable amount of success.
4. Time for a youth movement?
What do Adam Scott, Luke Donald, Trevor Immelman, Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey each have in common? They're all under 30, among the world's top 15 golfers and have never won a major. Experience plays a major factor at Augusta and though these guys are young, each has captured a top-10 here in the past. Any -- or all -- of them could be hanging around the leaderboard come Sunday.
5. Big Easy ... finally?
File this under the category of "Just when you least expect it": So many times Els entered the year's first major as a popular pick to win ... and so many times he came up just short. From 2000-04, he finished between second and sixth place each time. Now, more than 18 months removed from knee surgery, he's playing well (top-20 finishes in all three PGA Tour stroke-play starts so far), but hardly heads a list of favorites. It's been said for years that Els' 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame is built to wear a Green Jacket; could it happen this week?
6. A European has to win sometime ... right?
Ryder Cup triumphs aside, it's been a long, dry decade for the world's top European players. No one from across the pond has captured a major since Paul Lawrie cleaned up Jean Van de Velde's mess at the 1999 British Open and none have won the Masters since Jose Maria Olazabal claimed his second Green Jacket earlier that year. Maybe it's purely cyclical. After all, Europeans accounted for 11 of 20 Masters victories in the 1980s and '90s and with a talented arsenal of players, it should be only a matter of time before one of 'em is back on top. Best bets: Olazabal, Padraig Harrington, Paul Casey, Sergio Garcia, Luke Donald, Henrik Stenson and -- how's this for a story? -- Colin Montgomerie.
7. Could an unknown emerge?
Rich Beem, Shaun Micheel, Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton have each captured major championships this decade, despite owning previous low profiles. A relative unknown hasn't won the Masters, though, since Augusta native Larry Mize 20 years ago (and even he had a PGA Tour victory under his belt before then). Granted, the Masters' limited field doesn't leave much room for any sleepers even getting through the front gates, but someone unfamiliar to the casual fan will find himself in the mix. The trick is figuring out whom.
8. Will the local guys make good?
Woods and Mickelson remain the heavyweights, Couples and DiMarco are always fan favorites, but which other players will garner the biggest reaction from Augusta patrons should they find themselves climbing the leaderboard? Look no further than the local guys. Charles Howell III and Vaughn Taylor both grew up in the city of Augusta and have both professed their love for this event, Howell going as far as to say he'd happily hang up the golf spikes if he were to ever claim a Green Jacket. It's not such a far-fetched scenario; Howell already owns one win and four other top-10s this season.
9. Will an old guy make a run?
Sure, everyone knows Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at age 46 in 1986, but remember, he also finished T-6 as a 58-year-old -- 58! -- 12 years later. Last April, it was 1984 and '95 champion Ben Crenshaw, then 54, who turned back the clock, finding himself just five strokes off the pace entering the weekend. Experience is often a greater determining factor than current form at Augusta, so don't be surprised to see another elder statesmen make a run. Our choice? Tom Watson, who finished T-20 at Pebble Beach earlier this year.
10. More drama than last year?
The leaderboard entering last year's final round read like a who's who of elite players around the world. But the drama never materialized, as Mickelson shot a steady, benign Sunday 69, even bogeying the last hole to win by two. Yawn. Here's saying that if this week's leaderboard contains a similar cluster of top players, we'll at least get a little more bang for our buck.
11. Will left be right?
Three of the last four Green Jackets have been presented to fellows who hit from the "other" side of the ball. Does Augusta National favor southpaws? Or have those two wins by Mickelson and one by Weir simply been coincidence? Good news for Nick O'Hern, who joins the two past champions as the only lefties in this week's field.
12. Short people got no reason?
Chris Farley once made the phrase "fat guy in little coat" popular after the movie "Tommy Boy," but is it possible we could see a "little guy in Green Jacket" come Sunday? With the lengthening of Augusta last year, the course has become almost overbearing for short hitters. Most of the game's upper-echelon players own the distance off the tee necessary to contend, but things could get ugly for noted peashooters like Jeff Sluman and Fred Funk.
13. Rain, rain, go away?
There's not an ounce of rain in the latest forecast for the tournament's four days. So while the short hitters will still have their backs up against the wall, dry fairways will offer less of an advantage to the big bombers, allowing the medium-length guys to get into the mix. Good news for the likes of Donald, Weir and Tim Clark.
14. What's the magic number?
Mickelson's winning score of 7-under 281 last year equaled the total of Weir in 2003 as the highest since Nick Faldo's 283 in 1989. Will a year of course changes now under the players' belts mean it will take a few less strokes to capture the Green Jacket this time around? Could be, but don't expect any drastic differences. The tournament has a history of champions' scores never being too high or too low; in fact, Mickelson's total last year was only three shots better than that of the first winner, Horton Smith in 1934.
15. How low can they go?
The best-ever single-round score at the Masters? A 9-under 63, shot by Nick Price in 1986 and equaled by Greg Norman 10 years later. Last year, Jose Maria Olazabal came closest to matching this feat, but even he was three strokes off the pace, finishing with a final-round 66. Can someone get red-hot this time around? Past history indicates that, well, they may not want to. After all, neither Price nor Norman went on to win.
16. Changes in attitudes?
Players were quick to criticize the course lengthening of Augusta National last year, as it was expanded from 7,290 yards to 7,445. The venue will remain the same this time around, which means any whining or complaining should take a back seat in pretournament discussions. Or will it be a case of further familiarity breeding contempt for the longer course setup? Let's hope this is a nonissue one year later. Hey, they've all got to play the same course, right?
17. How will this dream end?
Nestled among the PGA Tour professional bags on the driving range this week will be U.S. Mid-Amateur champ Dave Womack, a Georgia native who qualified for the field by winning the USGA event last year. "I've always dreamed of going over there and playing," the former Georgia State University golfer said after beating Ryan Hybl, 1-up. "My mom and dad just knew I was going to be in the Masters one day. It's a weird feeling. It's just, it's amazing." If you needed one amateur to root for to win the Silver Cup, here's your guy.
18. Do you believe in schadenfreude?
At some point, someone, somewhere, will have a Rocco Mediate moment. You'll recall that last year Mediate was in contention on Sunday's back nine before tweaking his back and hitting three balls into the water on the famed par-3 12th hole. There was Norman's collapse in '96, Chip Beck's layup, Scott Hoch's choke from 18 inches away. You'll want to hang your head and cover your eyes ... but, of course, you won't. Because you know that, well, sometimes it's fun to watch guys lose.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com