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Potential Woods-McIlroy final pairing a major draw

Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods

AUGUSTA, GA. - The bloom is off.

Well, off the azaleas, anyway – an early spring, warm rains and high winds disqualifying the main attraction for at least half the Canadians who faithfully tune in the Masters each April: cabin-fevered gardeners.

The bloom, on the other hand, is back on Tiger Woods, written off by the grocery store gossip sheets, now once again cover-of-the-month for the glossy golf magazines and winner in the last PGA Tour event he played, the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

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The Georgia sky – and even some of the flower beds – might be a bit dull, but the 2012 Masters is anything but. Bookies are making Woods the odds-on favourite to win his fifth Masters and the golfing media has been falling all over itself to set up a mano a mano battle between Woods and last year's implosion, Rory McIlroy, for the right to wear a plain green sports jacket that wouldn't be allowed near Don Cherry's closet.

It was impossible to miss Woods during Tuesday's practice round. He started early, first group off with another former champion, Fred Couples, lucky fans – whoops, patrons – moving like schools of herring in the wake of his shots.

" Go get 'em, Tiger!" they shouted in their own practice sessions.

Mercifully, the insufferable fool who shouts " In the hole!" every time Woods takes a swing appeared to be locked up in the country jail – banned, hopefully, as surely as the evil cellphone from the sacred grass of Augusta National.

How this event has grown from those days nearly 80 years ago, when a golf tournament was proposed in the hopes of attracting the attention of sportswriters heading home from baseball's spring training. It is now the golf event in North America – a tournament great players dream of winning so much that, as former winner Gary Player once said, the pressure can become so great "you choke when you drive through the front gates."

Young McIlroy certainly did last year. Leading each round going into Sunday, standing on the first tee with a four-stroke cushion, he blew up on the back nine to an 80 and a tie for 15th place.

McIlroy was asked Tuesday how he felt that morning, walking from the ninth green to the 10th tee, where all his troubles began with a dreadful drive into the pines and a triple-bogey seven.

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"Obviously," he said, "there's memories that come back, memories that you don't want."

And yet, in a remarkable display of candour, the freckled 22-year-old from Northern Ireland opened up those sores and invited everyone in to see for themselves. He talked about the telephone call home to his mother, during which he broke down: "First time I had cried in a long time – I certainly let it out that morning and felt better for it."

And then he talked about a telephone call that came later and meant so much. He had flown to Malaysia to play in a tournament and was sitting in his hotel room when the phone rang and Greg Norman was on the other end. Norman's disasters at the Masters are legendary: bogeying the final hole in 1986 to give Jack Nicklaus his last major championship; losing any chance of victory to a miracle Larry Mize chip shot in '87; utterly collapsing in 1996 during an 11-shot shift in the final round that gave the green jacket to Nick Faldo.

McIlroy was a tad confused on his dates – "It's all right, I wasn't born!" – but knew exactly what had happened to Norman. "He'd sort of been in the position."

He wouldn't relate the entire conversation, but basically, Norman told him the secret is to "create this little bubble and try to get into that."

McIlroy knew what Norman meant. He had studied video of that final round and been unable to see himself, watching instead a dour, withdrawn player staring at the ground, trying to shut out the world.

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"I was trying to be too focused, too perfect," he said. "I like to have a bounce in my step." Get in the bubble, he thought, and then just be yourself. Don't look at the ground, look at the people. And have fun.

"The same person," he said, "with a different attitude."

At one point, McIlroy's cellphone went off in his pocket, causing him to giggle and an official to caution him: "No cellphones at Augusta."

"It was a huge learning curve," McIlroy said of his 2011 experience. "I took a lot from it. As a person and a golfer, I was not ready to win a major."

One month later, he was running away with the U.S. Open. Briefly, he was the No. 1 men's golfer in the world and would love to get back to that position: "Can't wait to get going."

Woods, who talked much later in the day, was a study in contrast. Whereas McIlroy invites the media in, Woods's demeanour has been such no one even dares broach a personal question, though every other player filing through the press building is asked about family and other matters that have nothing to do with the game. Woods, despite what has been whispered along the grocery store checkout lines, does not exist today apart from the golf course.

Four times he has won the Masters, 17 times he has played in it. "I've spent just about half my life playing this tournament," he said.

It has taken a long, long time, he said, but the 14-time majors' winner is back.

"I'd been putting together two good rounds," Woods said of his more than two-year slump after the personal problems that blew up his marriage and, seemingly, his game. "Then three, now four."

Augusta, he said, is playing tough due to wetness. "Seven drives, seven mudballs," he said of his nine-hole practice session.

The greens he found "soft and receptive," which is a rarity, but fully anticipated that, as the week goes on, they will speed up to the point where they, more than any other part of the famous course, will decide the champion. Critical, he predicted, will be "the big putt of 10 feet for par."

As for McIlroy, the one the media has selected to be his foe this week – though both players wore white hats Tuesday – Woods was nothing but complimentary. "It was cool," the 36-year-old said, "to see someone learn from his mistakes like that. Learned from it, applied it, and ran away with it [a month later at the U.S. Open]"

He had, curiously, never met McIlroy until this year, at an Abu Dhabi tournament, where they played a practice round together and were later paired.

Woods's impression of the one golf writers call The Next One: "He's very feisty."

Golf is perhaps even more unpredictable than other sports. While the Masters green jacket is famous, all those who have worn it are not.

Last year's winner was Charl Schwartzel and recent victors have included the likes of Angel Cabrera (2009), Trevor Immelman (2008) and Zach Johnson (2007). Phil Mickelson has won three times this last decade (2004, 2006, 2010) and, oddly, is barely even mentioned in the build-up to the final putt of 2012.

"There's 80-plus players in this field," McIlroy said. "It's not just about two guys, or three guys. You can't go out on a golf course and think about other people. I couldn't care less who the bookies make favourite."

And yet, who cannot imagine the drama should this year's final pairing come down to The Comeback and The Next One, Woods and McIlroy.

One with a bounce in his step and the other with a new determination in his stride.

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