AUGUSTA, Ga. - The 67th Masters begins this morning at Augusta National with a different look and feel. With the death last summer of Sam Snead, there will be no ceremonial starter. With more rain in the forecast, one of the world's most scenic golf courses will remain a bit gloomy.
And with the planned protest Saturday against the club's exclusionary membership toward women, there will be as much attention focused on what is happening outside the gates as on the greens. There are a few constants, none larger than the looming shadow caused by Tiger Woods.
Ever since Woods won his first Masters six years ago at the age of 21, the outcome of the season's first major championship has rested with him. If he plays up to his transcendent talent, Woods will be putting on a green jacket for the third straight year - and fourth time overall - come Sunday night.
"I don't think you can say anybody in the field, if they play their best, can beat Tiger at his best, but there are enough guys who if they play well, they can win," Davis Love said earlier this week.
Unlike recent years, the list of legitimate contenders to challenge Woods seems to have shrunk.
David Duval, who finished second to Woods two years ago, is in the midst of the worst slump in his career, having missed the cut in five of seven tournaments this year. Phil Mickelson is still thinking more about the birth of his first son two weeks ago than on winning his first major.
Vijay Singh, the last player before Woods to win the Masters, hasn't played well since his victory in the Phoenix Open in late January. Sergio Garcia is in the middle of a swing change that has resulted in the 23-year-old Spaniard missing the cut in his past two events.
Asked earlier this week if Woods can be stopped from becoming the first player to win three straight Masters, Garcia didn't sound too confident.
"I don't know," he said. "We'll see. But you never know. You can't really tell. If he plays well, of course there's no doubt he's going to be up there."
Love, who has rejuvenated his career with victories this year at Pebble Beach and The Players Championship, seems to believe that beating Woods is not impossible.
"If I play the way I played at the Players Championship, I can certainly win," Love said. "If I play close to that, I can win."
So can Ernie Els, should he regain the form that helped him win four times in his first five tournaments this year. The 33-year-old South African said Tuesday that the wrist he injured on a punching bag last month has healed, and he is raring to get another shot at the world's No. 1 player.
"If I, with my talent, play the golf course the way I should play it, I should be there Sunday afternoon," said Els, who finished second to Singh in 2000 and tied for fifth last year. "Then it's just a matter of keeping on doing what you're doing. At times I have done that and at other times I haven't done that."
Said Mickelson, who missed the cut last week at the BellSouth Classic: "There are days when Tiger's not playing well when guys can score lower than what he shoots. So if you judge by his score, then you're not playing your best golf."
It certainly helps when Woods isn't in contention. Els won his first major in five years in last year's British Open at Muirfield after Woods self-destructed during Saturday's third round. Just the mere presence of his name on the leader board is a distraction to others in contention.
"It could be," Mickelson said. "It could distract any player from playing their best."
Mickelson has learned firsthand about such distractions. He finished third here the past two years and second to Woods at last year's U.S. Open. Els finished a distant second to Woods in majors twice in 2000, losing by 15 strokes at the U.S. Open and by eight shots back in the British Open.
Els hasn't spent much time thinking about what's at stake - maybe in store - for Woods this week, but admitted, "He's done some amazing things. It would just be another one. Hopefully it doesn't [happen], but you know there are 93 other players. But he's probably got a very good chance of winning again.
"I don't want to, as I said before, think about him winning three times [in a row]. I would like to win my first one."
For his part, Woods doesn't think about the competition.
Not even how he might intimidate them.
"I wish I did," Woods said. "But you know these guys can flat out play. I think that the key for me is just to keep plugging along, keep doing what I do. If I can go ahead and keep applying the pressure, keep hitting quality shots, make a few putts here and there, that might make someone make a mistake. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't."
It worked two years ago, when Woods birdied the par-4 15th hole and Mickelson bogeyed the par-3 16th. It worked last year, when Woods came into the final round tied with reigning U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen of South Africa. Goosen bogeyed the par-4 opening hole, and Woods birdied the next two.
Woods was asked earlier this week about who he might be looking at to challenge him this week.
"You know, it really doesn't matter," he said. "If you start thinking that way, you're not going to do any bit of good to yourself. I've got to go out there and play my game and give myself a chance to win the tournament.
"Whoever is there on the back nine on Sunday is there. You can't pick out a couple of guys and say these are the guys I need to beat. Because they might not be there. I need to get there myself."
He usually does, giving Augusta National its most recent constant: the sight of Woods slipping into another green jacket on Sunday night.
Five players who could beat Tiger Woods at the Masters
The 33-year-old South African won last year's British Open, has four titles this year and has come close at Augusta each of the past three years.
A runner-up at Augusta National in 1995 and 1999, Love has overcome back and neck problems to become a factor again with two wins this season.
He finished in the top 10 in three of the four majors last year, but the 31-year-old Irishman now must overcome the par-3 winner's jinx.
Few outside expectations might be the perfect panacea for a 32-year-old known for wilting under the pressure of having never won a major.
The Australian, 22, had an impressive Masters debut last year (tie for ninth) and almost upset Woods in the semifinal of this year's Match Play Championship.
When: Today through Sunday.
Where: Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.
Course: Par 72, 7,290 yards.
Today's TV: USA Network, 4-6:30 p.m. (live) and 8-10:30 p.m. (tape); chs. 13, 9, 11:30-11:45 p.m. (highlights show).
Defending champion: Tiger Woods.