Out of Bounds: 2012 Masters full of storylines

It’s that time of year when everyone seems to have Georgia on their mind as the Masters, the most exclusive and alluring tournament of professional golf, begins on Thursday April 5.

Played annually in Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, the Masters offers the winning golfer a lifetime of recognition, along with a club membership and a very stylish green jacket.

The storyline leading to this year’s tournament is perhaps the most intriguing in history. Phil Mickelson began the season by clawing back from behind to win at Pebble Beach in California. Rory McIlroy took over the number one ranking from rival Luke Donald for the first time, only to trade it back after a week. And a different player has won each of the year’s tournaments so far.

The golf story that everyone knows best, though, is that of Tiger Woods. After a two-year fall from grace, Woods finally broke out to win his first title since 2009 last week. The win came after endless months of media speculation, multiple new coaches, new caddies and some pathetic play. So for the first time in years, Woods is on the hunt for titles. And he’s a favorite at Augusta.

Woods is back and so is his hunger for wins. The Masters is his first chance this year to restart his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major wins (to Woods’ 14). In months past, it may have seemed impossible for Woods to surpass Nicklaus in major wins, but things are looking up.

Four green jackets hang in his closet, second only to – guess who – Jack Nicklaus. Woods’ name hangs on the wall in the Augusta National clubhouse for a course record largest margin of victory in 1997, also winning as the youngest player yet at 21.

So expectations for America’s favorite golfer are high. Even his opponents agree, like Graeme McDowell who recently stated that the old Woods is back. The competition, however, is shaking at his resurgence. Following his defeat by Woods two weeks ago, McDowell conceded that he thought Tiger “will dominate golf again. I see him winning a major a year for the next five, six years … which is pretty damn good.” That’s some high praise, especially coming from another former world No. 1. Other players are less diplomatic, like Zach Johnson who said that Woods is “the best player I’ve ever seen.”

What does Woods think of his chances at Augusta amidst his rise back to dominance? The usually levelheaded and modest – forgetting that whole affair episode – Woods says only that he “understands how to play Augusta.”

His understanding of the course and the competition, paired with his recent contentment with his play, make him cautiously optimistic. Woods may be only mildly hopeful, but fans worldwide are pulling for him. With or without media praise, Woods is back and history could be in the making at this year’s Masters. No pressure, Tiger, but you have to win again.

Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that the road to a green jacket will be an easy walk through the azaleas. Not at all. Lee Westwood and Donald, both top players who have been ranked No. 1, will be vying for their first major wins. Northern Ireland sensation McIlroy will look to back up his win at the U.S. Open last year. And don’t forget the “other” American, three-time Masters champion Mickelson.

The Masters is here and the story this year will be captivating. Woods is slated to make a stunning career recovery as the game’s most promising young players nip at his heels. Play goes through Sunday April 8. Isn’t it time you put Georgia on your mind?