AUGUSTA, Georgia, April 4 (Reuters) - Not since 2001, when Tiger Woods was seeking an unprecedented fourth successive major title, has a Masters tournament been so eagerly anticipated as this week's 76th edition.
Virtually all of the game's top players have arrived in good form at Augusta National where heavy rain during the event's build-up has softened the notoriously tricky greens, giving the more inexperienced participants a greater chance of success.
Woods, who ended a two and a half year title drought on the PGA Tour with victory at last month's Arnold Palmer Invitational, will be hunting his fifth green jacket at a venue where he has always felt extremely comfortable.
U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland will be seeking redemption 12 months after a final-round meltdown in which he squandered a four-shot overnight lead with a closing 80.
World number one Luke Donald and fellow Briton Lee Westwood, who have become regular contenders in the game's biggest events, will each be chasing a first major title, as will Australians Adam Scott and Jason Day, joint runners-up last year.
Woods has been installed as a 4-1 favourite by British bookmakers Ladbrokes with McIlroy next best at 5-1 but any talk of this week's Masters being a two-horse race has been widely rejected by their peers.
"Rory has never won here, Tiger has not won here since 2005," Westwood told reporters while preparing for Thursday's opening round.
"So I think everybody in this room would have to be naive to think it was a two-horse race wouldn't they? Phil might have a little bit of something to say about that; Luke might; I might."
Donald agreed: "It's a little naive to say that they are the only two who have a chance to win around here. Just in the last three or four years of majors, I don't think there's been a multiple winner," said Chicago-based Donald.
"So obviously without one or two people dominating, I think there's a chance for a lot of people to win this week."
Mickelson, who has won three green jackets at a venue where his magical short game gives him an edge, believes the softer conditions will turn the opening major into a lottery.
"When the subtleties don't come out, the experience of playing here in the past is not as important," said the left-hander.
"I think there's a very good chance that a young player, inexperienced, fearless player that attacks this golf course can win if you don't need to show it the proper respect."
There is no question, however, that experienced campaigners generally thrive at Augusta National.
"Playing here for so many years now, this is my 18th year here, so understanding how to play this golf course has really helped me over the years," Woods said.
"I certainly am excited about playing and really looking forward to getting out there. I feel like I'm driving the ball much better than I have. I've got some heat behind it, and it's very straight."
South African Charl Schwartzel will defend the title he won by two strokes when he became the first champion to birdie the last four holes.
"That was very special," he said. "The biggest challenge for me this year is that there are going to be more eyes on me, people wanting to see whether I can live up to the challenge. I have to go out there and treat it as a new tournament." (Editing by Julian Linden)