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After all this time, Phil and Tiger are still the players to beat at the Masters

Phil Mickelson, Wednesday, 2011 Masters
John Biever/SI
With a victory this week, Mickelson can become the modern King of Augusta.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The guy sitting behind you at dinner has one. Ian Poulter has one. The familiar-looking fellow selling merchandise and smoking cigarettes outside his bus on Washington Road has one. "People have different opinions," Lee Westwood said recently, "but I suppose that's what makes life interesting, isn't it, opinions? They're like a part of the body, everybody has one."

Hours before the start of the 2011 Masters, opinions cleave straight down the middle to form two camps, which is standard, because the Masters field is like the market for cola — lots of options, two stand out. Phil Mickelson, 40, and Tiger Woods, 35, have won six of the last 10 Masters. Like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus before them, they've cracked the code.

"I'm picking Tiger," said John Daly, who, as usual, was stationed across the street from Augusta National on Washington Road, selling his lion-logo wares. "I'm tired of people being so critical of him."

Mickelson (No. 3) won last weekend to pass Woods (No. 7) in the World Ranking for the first time in 14 years. Both of them, along with four others in the top seven, would take over No. 1 with a victory this week. But Mickelson has much more to gain than that. With a victory, he would tie Woods and Palmer with a fourth green jacket. That would give Mickelson four of the last eight Masters titles, the undying goodwill of the public and, in the minds of many fans, would make him the modern king of Augusta National.

In his one and only practice round this week, he teed off with Fred Couples and Kevin Streelman in warm sunshine early Wednesday, hitting a 40-yard pitch to about a foot on the third hole, and watching a deer run across the eighth fairway. Streelman left after nine, and Rickie Fowler and U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein joined the Mickelson group.

Woods, who played his final practice round with Mark O'Meara and Arjun Atwal, assumed primacy with his historic, 12-shot romp in 1997, but that feels like a lifetime ago. He has not won since November of 2009, and he has changed his marital status, his putter (he'll go with the Nike Method this week) and his swing coach, from Hank Haney to Sean Foley.

As ordinary as they've looked — and they've each looked painfully so for much of the last year — Mickelson and Woods remain overwhelming co-favorites at Augusta, where an otherworldly short game trumps wildness off the tee.

Martin Kaymer? The world No. 1 has missed the cut in all three of his starts here, admits he has trouble working the ball right to left (as is needed at Augusta) and spoke this week about how it might be an advantage to play the course left handed. That's not exactly Joe Namath confidence.

Westwood has a decent Masters record — second to Mickelson last year, third in 2008 — but he putted terribly at last week's Shell Houston Open, where he tied for 30th while paired with flashy winner Mickelson for 54 of 72 holes.

Graeme McDowell has missed the cut in two of three Masters starts, and he shot an opening 80 at the recent Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he was seen working late on the range with a swing aid strapped to his left leg.

Fred Couples rarely putts well four days in a row.

Among the usual suspects, that leaves Tiger and Phil, or, to go by the current indicators, Phil and Tiger.

"I think they are equally dominant," said Nick Watney, who has never finished out of the top 20 in three Masters. "Phil obviously as of late, and Tiger early. That's kind of like, you know, that's 1-a and 1-b. I think they have won seven. I would have a really hard time picking one or the other."

Westwood said he'd never seen Mickelson play as well as he did in round three in Houston, when he fired a 63 to kick-start his first victory since the 2010 Masters.

"I've felt great on this golf course even before I won here," said Mickelson, who has a gaudy 13 top-10 finishes in 18 starts at Augusta, including his three victories.

He knows the course so well — he made scouting trips the week of the WGC-Cadillac and the week of the Shell — he could get by on no practice rounds. The last time he won a tournament the week before the Masters, in 2006, he won the Masters. Life couldn't get rosier for Phil if Krispy Kreme catered all four rounds, which is why his fans are anxious.

What if he peaked a week early? What if he feels and plays tight in the role of the favorite? What if he outsmarts himself with the two-driver ploy, as he did with his no-driver trick at the 2008 U.S. Open, or another brilliant-crazy gambit meant to thread pine trees and fly the hazard?

Woods did not play in Houston, and there are whispers that the 14-time major winner is Enron-dead. Poulter boldly predicted in The Chicago Tribune earlier this week that Woods would not finish in the top five this week, and he's hardly the only one who's voicing reasonable doubt.

"I assume that he'll get his focus back on what he's doing, and he will probably pass my record," Jack Nicklaus, the 18-time major winner, said Tuesday. "But then the last part I always say about it is, he's still got to do it."

That's usually where Nicklaus stops on the subject and waits for another question, but this time he went on: "If you look at what he's got to do, he's still got to win five more, and that's more than a career for anybody else playing."

Arnold Palmer has wondered aloud why Woods would overhaul his swing yet again, and Gary Player told Golf.com earlier this week that Tiger looks confused about his swing.

But as with Mickelson, it's worth remembering that appearances can be deceiving. Woods, who has put in long hours on Augusta's posh new driving range, went dormant while making swing changes under Butch Harmon and Haney, and each time he came back strong.

"I love what Sean is doing with his swing," Daly said. "With Hank, he stood up a little taller and took it back a little outside, but Tiger's taking it back more inside now, which is a better position. His swing looks exactly like it did when I first played with him when he was 13 years old."

That's exactly the idea, Woods says. He's even trying to release the putter head like he did when he was a kid, partly as a response to the streaky putting that has plagued him at Augusta and elsewhere. Mickelson's stock is so high it's easy to forget that he and Woods finished in a crowded tie for 24th place at the Arnold Palmer Invitational (Bay Hill), Tiger's last start. Both men said they saw signs of life in their games, and we saw from Mickelson last week that he was right. Woods could be next.

"It just takes time," Woods said of his swing change, which looked promising at the 2010 Ryder Cup and Chevron Challenge, but has looked less promising this year. "It took a long time with Butch and it took a long time with Hank, and so far it's taken a long time with Sean. It's taken a long time to develop the patterns and know what the fixes are."

Is it still his time? Is it still Mickelson's? They've won on and off here since '97. The course has been lengthened, but both have won on it. The competition keeps getting younger, but of the youngsters only Anthony Kim — third last year, 11 birdies in one round in 2009 — has excelled at Augusta.

Even the weather forecast, for a healthy stretch of heat, favors old bones, as everything does here. Experience rules. When Dustin Johnson asked pal Mickelson if he could take a peak at his book on Augusta National, Mickelson smartly declined. He did the same when he was asked Tuesday how one might "Phil-proof" the place.

"Well, I'm certainly not going to voice that," he said, smiling.

It's just as well. No one would want to, anyway, with golf's two most compelling figures about to show the full range of their abilities on the course that suits them best.

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