AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy bumped into each other on the putting green earlier this week, two alpha dogs sharing space at Augusta National Golf Club.
They had a private conversation in front of a gallery of hundreds, each golfer standing with his shoulders back and his chest high, each possessing the unmistakable air of a winner.
Woods turned to walk away first, the elder signaling to the younger that their chat was over and it was time to return to work. McIlroy lingered for a moment and then dutifully followed suit.
It was a brief encounter in what many believe could be a decade of jousting in major championships -- a decade that could begin during this year’s Masters.
“He has all of the makings of being a great champion for a long period of time,” Woods said of McIlroy. “He’s very feisty.”
After three months of delicious prologue, the most anticipated Masters in recent memory is nigh, with the potential for a collision of leading men on golf’s grandest stage.
From the craggy shoreline of the West Coast to the swaying palms of Florida, the 2012 season has been steadily building to a crescendo in Augusta. Phil Mickelson threw the first salvo of the year, besting Woods by 11 shots in the final round of his win at Pebble Beach in February. McIlroy entered the fray at the Honda Classic in March, holding off Woods to briefly seize the No. 1 ranking.
Then two weeks ago, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Woods awoke from a 30-month slumber to win by five shots at Bay Hill, an ideal appetizer before his 18th appearance at the Masters.
Luke Donald won in Tampa, Justin Rose in Miami, Hunter Mahan in Tucson and Houston. So many big names playing at a high level at the same time, so many believing they can win the Masters.
“Obviously, [Woods and McIlroy] garner the most attention right now, [but] I think it’s a little naïve to say that they are the only two that have a chance to win around here,” said Donald, the current No. 1 player in the world. “Just in the last three or four years of majors, I don’t think there’s been a multiple winner. There’s a chance for a lot of people to win this week.”
Said Lee Westwood: “You could probably pick out 30 guys. Rory has never won here. Tiger’s not won here since 2005. I think Phil might have a little bit of something to say about that. Luke might. I might.”
Not since Woods’s chase for a fourth consecutive major at the 2001 Masters has the energy around Augusta National been so charged, with loud roars echoing through the pines during practice rounds.
Even the Masters fledglings believe they can fight their way into the mix, their lack of tournament rounds at Augusta National notwithstanding.
Scott Stallings, who earned his Masters badge by winning last year’s Greenbrier Classic, played his 16th practice round at the course Tuesday. (His first one was on Dec. 10.) Every time out he says he picks up a nuance from the course, the way a green breaks or a fairway runs. Each time he feels more comfortable.
“My game sets up good [here],” Stallings said. “I hit it far and fairly straight. We all know what we have to do. It all comes down to doing it.”
Webb Simpson, also playing in his first Masters, has gleaned course tidbits from his veteran caddie, Paul Tesori, and tried to narrow the knowledge gap between himself and players like Mickelson and Woods.
“This is [Tesori’s] 11th Masters, and he told me he’s seen the course in all types of conditions,” Simpson said. “You need to know where you can miss shots here. There are certain holes where you cannot get it up and down, and you just have to know where you can chip the ball close and hopefully get up and down for pars.”
Mickelson speculated that the showers that have peppered Augusta National could leave the course more vulnerable to low scores, and that Masters newbies would have less fear of a softened course. That may be the case, and the Masters does occasionally turn out a surprise winner, but the 2012 version of the year’s first major tournament seems headed for something memorable and perhaps historic.
Too many top players are peaking. Too many know what’s at stake. Mickelson, who will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame next month, can tie Woods and Arnold Palmer with four green jackets. Woods can nab his fifth green jacket and 15th major, closing the gap on Jack Nicklaus’s record six Masters victories and 18 major championships. McIlroy can add a second major and obliterate the memories of last year’s Sunday meltdown at Augusta National.
“This is the week we look forward to the most,” Mickelson said.
The golfers are not alone.