The Augusta National Golf Club is the most magical place in the sport, and the course dreamt up by Bobby Jones to provide the game's ultimate challenge has stood the test of time. Always a huge focal point as the year's first Major Championship, it is a course that has staged more majors than any other in the world.
The Augusta National has led the way throughout its 77-year Major Championship history, not least in finding new ways to protect its magnificently manicured condition against the elements. An undersoil heating system, which ensures the greens maintain a healthy growth during months of frost, has been working overtime this winter, the third coldest in 100 years in Georgia. Five weeks ago, the course was covered with snow, and just as modern technology has kept the legendary putting surfaces in prime condition, special lights and heating has had to be used to get the rhododendrons and magnolias in full bloom.
Once again, the picture that greets players and spectators alike is unmatched in golf, but beneath the beauty of Augusta lurks danger. Over the past four years, to combat the effects of modern equipment on the distances players are now able to hit the ball, the par 72 course has been lengthened considerably to its present 7,435 yards. While some golfers complain, the reality is that they are now using more or less the same clubs to hit into greens as I remember we did when I played in the 1984 Masters. Mode players are not used to using long irons for approach shots, although they are justified in feeling the Augusta test has been toughened by the planting of more pine trees to narrow the fairways and the introduction of rough.
It is not the kind of punishing rough found at other Tour events, but it adds an extra degree of difficulty when you are hitting shots into golf's most difficult greens. While some of the most severe slopes have been shaved a little, the greens still seem to get quicker each year and are still incredibly challenging. The course has only three straight holes, the third, seventh and 17th, although each of these par fours have sloping fairways and the changes in elevation at Augusta, something television does not show, can catch players out.
Recent course alternations have put an extra premium on driving accuracy. This s proven by the fact that both Zach Johnson and Trevor Immelman, winners in 2007 and 2008, are great drivers of the golf ball. But to win at Augusta you need every aspect of your game to be in good shape, and this helps to explain why Tiger Woods has not donned the Green Jacket since 2005. Before the changes Tiger also won in 1997, 2001 and 2002.
Tiger is a great iron player and the best putter and chipper in the game, which is the most important thing to get right around this course, but his driving can often be wayward and the punishment at Augusta is a lot tougher now. Even so, in three of the past four Masters, Woods has gone into the last round with a chance of winning. This time, after five months without competing, it will be interesting to see how he handles his game and the challenges Augusta sets. Back when I played it was a regular thing in the winter not to compete for four or five months.
I do not see it as a problem mentally for Tiger, even with what has happened in his personal life, as he is the toughest competitor I have ever seen. Five months ago, Tiger was the undisputed world No 1, and nothing since then has changed that fact, especially as he has been preparing for the last month specifically for The Masters with frequent practice rounds there. When Tiger does have a driving problem, it occurs when he slashes at the ball and loses control of his swing, most times the ball sails off to the right. If he swings at 85 per cent of his power, he still hits the ball further than 90 per cent of the field and keeps it under control.
If he can resist the temptation to blast away over the next four days, he will be my favourite to win, although Ernie Els probably feels he is playing better than anyone in the world right now. It is exciting for golf that Els has found his form again. Along with Mickleson he has the length off the tee and the talent to match Tiger, although they need to be at their best to beat him. For a number of years Ernie struggled with his putting stroke because of an over-exaggerated shoulder movement, something I felt so strongly about that I had to mention it to his coach, David Leadbetter, during the British Open at Turnberry last year. Now his stroke looks nice and calm, with a lot more feel involved, there is still a little work to do but hopefully he will have confidence on the greens.
The swing is as good as I have ever seen it, and the rhythm is classic Els. Big hitters like Ernie still have a huge advantage, as Angel Cabrera proved with his victory last year, and Paul Casey, who showed with his win in Houston last year that he can cope with some of the world's fastest greens, could capitalise. He is among the biggest hopes for Europe, who enjoyed 11 Masters triumphs in the 1980s and 1990s.
Lee Westwood has shown over the past two years he is a major expert, has the game to win the Masters and is without doubt the most consistent performer out of the European players. In 1999, he was in a position to win the Masters on the back nine on the Sunday, if he is in the same situation this year, I will not be surprised to see him win. Henrik Stenson, Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald are all good enough to win, but it all boils down to whether they believe it, just like Lee in 1999, they will not know until they put themselves into contention.
That will not be a problem for Ian Poulter, who has always had incredible confidence in his ability. He is putting brilliantly at the moment and I cannot wait to see him in action on Augusta's greens. Dustin Johnson could surprise a few people this week. He is a 25-year-old American who has already won three PGA Tour events and is one of the most exciting players to watch right now. He hits it 30 to 40 yards further than Woods, Mickleson or Els.
If he gets it all together this week, he could be the one walking away with the green jacket. Former European and US Tour player Philip Parkin (www.philparkin.com) is a member of the TV golf commentary team for the BBC in the UK and Golf Channel in the US. @Email:email@example.com