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Woods' return is biggest story at Masters

Story lines for the 79th Masters abound, like the flowers on the dogwood trees that provide a lovely setting at the Augusta National Golf Club.

Story lines for the 79th Masters abound, like the flowers on the dogwood trees that provide a lovely setting at the Augusta National Golf Club.

Will Rory McIlroy win his third consecutive major championship and become the sixth player in golf history to complete the career Grand Slam? Can Bubba Watson make it three green jackets in four years? Will Phil Mickelson find his game somewhere in the drive down Magnolia Lane and be part of the chase toward his fourth Masters championship?

Will 21-year-old Jordan Spieth finish the job on Sunday afternoon after challenging last year? Can Dustin Johnson and Jimmy Walker carry their fine play of late into the Augusta National pressure-cooker? How will Erik Compton, the courageous double-heart transplant recipient, fare in his first trip amid the azaleas?

Oh, and one more? Tiger Woods is competing.

Woods, a four-time Masters champion, announced Friday on his website that he will be present for the opening round Thursday. It will be his first competitive 18 since he withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines on Feb. 5 with lower-back pain.

"It's obviously very important to me, and I want to be there," Woods said on "I've worked a lot on my game, and I'm looking forward to competing. I'm excited to get to Augusta, and I appreciate everyone's support."

Woods, who won his fourth green jacket exactly 10 years ago this Friday, played a practice round Tuesday and reportedly was at the course again Friday hitting balls on the practice range.

Of course, the major questions are the health of Woods, and of his game. He said in February that he would not return until he could "compete at the highest level. . . . When I think I'm ready, I'll be back."

Woods, who missed the 2014 Masters after undergoing back surgery, took a four-month break last year. In the six-plus rounds he played after returning in December, he struggled with his short game, a vital part of whether he experiences success or failure around the tricky greens at Augusta National.

Woods' return could overshadow the compelling stories of the week headed by McIlroy, 25, who added the British Open at Royal Liverpool and the PGA Championship at Valhalla last year to his impressive resumé. A green jacket would enable him to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Woods as the only players to complete the career Slam.

McIlroy has not done all that well in previous Masters. His best chance to win came in 2011, when he took a 4-stroke lead into the final round but blew up on the back nine and shot 80. He was not in contention last year, but a 69 on the final day put him in eighth place, his best showing in the Masters.

McIlroy will come into the Masters not having played competitive golf since March 22, when he finished the Arnold Palmer Invitational in a tie for 11th place.

"I sort of like that because if I had played really well the last few weeks, how do I keep this going?" McIlroy said after the final round. "It's almost nice to be able to try and build yourself up. I don't feel like I'm right there. I feel like I'm just gradually building myself up, so it's actually not a bad position to be in."

McIlroy's challengers come from two lists - players with one or more green jackets, and others seeking to break through to a first major championship.

Watson, the long-driving lefthander, outdueled Spieth last year to win with a final-round 69. Mickelson, a three-time champion, had posted one top-10 finish in his last 30 PGA Tour events entering this weekend's Shell Houston Open, but some good play in Houston should give him momentum heading to Augusta.

The rundown of non-major winners includes Spieth, 21, who has the experience from last year plus a win in last month's Valspar Championship under his belt, and Walker, 36, the winner of two tournaments this year and No. 1 on the FedEx Cup points list.

Then there is Johnson, 30, who sat out six months to deal with personal issues and won the World Golf Championship event at Doral in Miami after he returned. Johnson has come close in majors before and has the game to win the Masters.

"One aspect of his game that gets overlooked is he's a pretty good putter," ESPN commentator Andy North said. "The combination of his length and the fact he's a pretty darned good short-to-middle-length putter . . . I think his game fits there."

They said the same thing about Tiger Woods for many years. Does his game still fit Augusta National? It should be a fascinating week.

TV Coverage

Wednesday: Par 3 contest, 3-5 p.m., ESPN.

Thursday: First round, 3-7:30 p.m., ESPN.

Friday: Second round, 3-7:30 p.m., ESPN.

Saturday: Third round, 3-7 p.m., CBS3.

Sunday: Final round, 2-7 p.m., CBS3.EndText