By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) - If Masters success was guaranteed by early season form and a high comfort factor at Augusta National, then look no further than Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson for likely champions next week in the year's opening major.
The two Americans have produced hugely impressive, winning golf on the 2013 PGA Tour and, just like Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal before them, simply driving up Augusta National's fabled Magnolia Lane puts them in a triumphant frame of mind.
Short game wizardry and the ability to minimize three-putts is a must for any would-be Masters champion at a venue renowned for its lightning-fast, heavily contoured greens.
Olazabal, a two-time winner during the 1990s, was one of golf's best in this department while Woods and Mickelson, who have earned seven green jackets between them, are both geniuses on and around the green.
"Generally the guys that have won here have really putted well, avoided three-putts and have made the big putt from 10 feet or so for par," said Woods, a four-time champion who reclaimed the world number one ranking with a victory at last month's Arnold Palmer Invitational. "Those are huge around here.
"No matter what you do, you're going to have those kinds of putts, and you're going to have to bury them.
"Those putts are going to be tricky. Some are going to be really quick and break. And other ones, you're going to have to be pretty aggressive. There's so much slope out here."
Woods signaled he is likely to be among the front-runners for the year's first major by winning the Farmers Insurance Open in January and last month's WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral and Arnold Palmer Invitational in vintage 'Tiger' style.
He triumphed by four shots at Torrey Pines and by two at Doral and Bay Hill, on each occasion evoking memories of his glory days in the late 1990s and early 2000s with his all-round game.
"To be able to bring it out a couple times so far this year, and then able to close and get the Ws on top of that, that's nice," Woods said after claiming his fifth PGA Tour title in his last 19 events.
"Any time I can win prior to Augusta, it always feels good. I've been able to do it a few times throughout my career, which is nice. I'm excited about this year."
Mickelson, who has often scorched the back nine at Augusta with his power game and magical touch around the greens, laid down his marker for the Masters with a scintillating victory at the Phoenix Open in February.
The left-hander birdied three of the last six holes at the TPC Scottsdale to complete a wire-to-wire win, finishing just two strokes shy of the PGA Tour low for 72 holes with a 28-under total of 256.
"It's important to start building momentum," Mickelson, who has made a career habit of winning in the first four months of the PGA Tour season, said of his buildup.
"Certainly having been in contention and being able to come out on top is an important element going into the Masters if you want to do well because you've got to deal with some of the greatest pressure you will ever feel at the Masters."
However, the list of potential champions is a long one, as demonstrated by the 'unlikely' victories of Canada's Mike Weir in 2003, American Zach Johnson in 2007 and South African Trevor Immelman in 2008.
The strength in depth of the modern game is unparalleled in the history of golf and virtually any player in the field, with a few venerable exceptions, is capable of winning with a hot hand for all four rounds.
Twice major winner Rory McIlroy, the world number two, will be eager to atone for his nightmarish final-round meltdown in 2011 when he squandered a four-shot overnight lead with a closing 80.
The Northern Irishman, one of the most popular and engaging figures in the game, will also be champing at the bit to prove that his relatively poor form earlier this season, following his switch in club manufacturers, was simply a temporary phase.
Former world number ones Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, along with their fellow Englishmen Justin Rose and Ian Poulter, will each be chasing a first major title, as will Australians Adam Scott and Jason Day, joint runners-up two years ago.
Veterans such as Steve Stricker and Ernie Els, established PGA Tour winners like Brandt Snedeker, Hunter Mahan and Matt Kuchar, plus a host of younger guns led by American Rickie Fowler and Italy's Matteo Manassero, are all capable of flourishing.
And you most certainly cannot rule out a repeat win by American left-hander Bubba Watson, who beat South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen in a playoff last year after conjuring a miraculous shot from pine straw as he hooked a wedge 40 yards through the air for his ball to settle 10 feet from the pin.
"I got in these trees, hit a crazy shot that I saw in my head and somehow I'm here talking to you with a green jacket on," Watson said after joining fellow left-handers Mickelson (2004, 2006 and 2010) and Weir as Masters winners.
"I never got this far in my dreams. It's a blessing."
The 77th Masters will be played from April 11-14.
(Editing by Julian Linden)