Stage set for Masters

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AUGUSTA, April 6- An all-star cast of golf's greatest players challenge legendary Augusta National in the 75th Masters starting on Thursday with the world number one ranking and a major title up for grabs.

Defending champion Phil Mickelson made himself the favorite with a victory last Sunday at the PGA Houston Open, rising to third in the world with his first triumph since claiming a third Masters green jacket 51 weeks earlier.

"Guys gear their game for this event and it can be one of the toughest tournaments to win because so many guys are playing well," Mickelson said. "I would never discount any single player that’s in this field."

There’s a Lion and a Tiger in the Masters field of 99 as well as memories of a Golden Bear on the 25th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus capturing his sixth Masters title and the last of his record 18 career major titles at age 46.

"That’s part of what people remember when they think back over previous Masters," said England’s Lee Westwood. "That’s part of the charm of it."

"Oh my" moments figure to come from such crafty shotmakers as World No. 1 Martin Kaymer of Germany, second-ranked Westwood, No. 4 Luke Donald of England and Northern Ireland’s No. 5 Graeme McDowell, the reigning US Open champion.

Together with Tiger Woods, the 14-time major champion who has not won in almost 18 months since his infamous sex scandal began, the top five players in the world could all move atop the rankings by winning the year’s first Major.

"I feel like everything is coming together," Westwood said. "If it all clicks into place this week, I know if I’m on my game it’s good enough to win."

Lion Kim, a South Korean-born US amateur, is among 20 first-time Masters starters who figure to see Augusta National at her fiercest, with warm and sunny weather forecast through the weekend.

"It’s going to be one heck of a test this week," Woods said. "The course is playing really long, fairways are as lush as I’ve ever seen them and the greens are absoultely perfect."

McDowell expects Augusta National officials to set up the course in similar conditions to those that produced a 16-under par 72-hole winning score by Mickelson last year, among the lowest in Masters history.

"It seems this week that scoring looks to be on the minds," McDowell said. "They want to see 15-, 20-under par win this week and from what I can see so far, it’s not the scary Augusta test. It’s going to be a fun test.

"It’s going to have a mixture. There’s holes out there you’re happy with par but there will also be some birdie chances this week."

Mickelson says that while long drivers have an edge in places, the short game magician could be the man to beat.

"You don’t have to be a big hitter to win here. You have to play away from your weaknesses and to your strengths," Mickelson said. "If your short game isn’t sharp, you really need to strike it exceptionally well. Anybody, whether you are long or short, if you’re on your short game, you have a good chance."

Westwood finished second to Mickelson last year and has yet to win a Major even though he did claim the World No.1 slot for a time. Mickelson, whose run as "Best Player Never to Win a Major" ended in 2004 at Augusta, knows the pain.

"Last year I sat in the scoring cabin and he just said, ‘Just keep doing what you are doing and it will happen for you sooner or later,’" Westwood recalled.

Woods, not a Masters favorite for the frst time since a record-crushing 1997 Masters victory brought his first major title said he felt ready to win this week and that "everything" about his game gave him confidence.

Saying his best golf is yet to come, Woods said he remains confident of overtaking Nicklaus for the all-time major record.

"I believe in myself," Woods said. "There’s nothing wrong with believing in myself. The whole idea is that you can always become better."

Woods has been working on swing changes with coach Sean Foley for nearly a year with no victory to show for it.

"It takes time," Woods said. "Taking a step back, or sometimes two, there’s nothing wrong with that if I’m going to make three, four, five steps forward and become better in the end."

Mickelson, who has never been atop the rankings, is ranked ahead of Woods for the first time since Woods won the 1997 Masters.

"It would really mean a lot if he was No. 1 at the time when I passed him," Mickelson said. "But he and I both have some work to do on our games to move back up there."

The player mentioned most as one to beware from outside the top-ranked contenders is American left-hander Bubba Watson, whose combination of long-driving power and skilfull shotmaking creativity could be formidable.

"Bubba is the most underrated player," Kaymer said. "Everybody knows he hits the ball long but he is very talented at shaping the ball, any side, and I think that is his biggest strength. You should always watch out for him."

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