By Andrew Both
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Tiger Woods says there is no clear-cut favorite, Rory McIlroy hopes to grab the Green Jacket with both hands and Justin Thomas plans to wait for his rivals to self-destruct.
The 87-man field is primed, the azaleas have bloomed and the weather forecast is fine except possibly for Saturday's third round for the U.S. Masters at Augusta National.
At 8:30 A.M. local time on Thursday (12:30 GMT) the first round will begin and the long build-up and endless speculation will be overtaken by something that actually matters -- a score.
Several blockbuster storylines are possible, not least the quest of Woods to defy long odds and collect a fifth Masters title after an astonishingly successful spinal fusion less than a year ago.
"I feel fantastic," said Woods, 42, who despite multiple back and knee surgeries has lost little of his dynamic swing speed and power.
Others may disagree, but Woods said victory on Sunday would not constitute the greatest comeback in golf, an honor he bestowed on Ben Hogan, who recovered from a near-fatal car crash to win three consecutive majors in 1953.
But a Woods win would be nothing less than stunning, so soon after his career seemed on the scrap-heap as he endured searing pain in his back and legs, with a cure seemingly out-of-reach until he took the surgical equivalent of a Hail Mary.
Woods predicts a tightly-packed leaderboard as many of the game's top players peak at the right time.
A major obstacle blocking his route to a 15th major title is McIlroy, who is four great rounds from completing the career grand slam and joining Woods, Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen and Gary Player in that super-elite club.
McIlroy is ready to seize the moment.
"Sometimes I feel I've given this course a little bit too much respect," said the Northern Irishman, signaling an aggressive game plan.
"I have gotten in my way before ... but I don't think that will happen this week."
Thomas has not yet achieved the fame of Woods or McIlroy, but his career arc suggests it might be only a matter of time.
The American world number two, and winner of his first major at the PGA Championship last August, is making only his third appearance at the Masters.
"You want to try to win ... but just try not to win so much," he said, raising the conundrum all golfers face in a game where only a certain level of arousal is optimal.
Thomas is channeling his inner Nicklaus. The Golden Bear was the master of just hanging around and letting others fall on their own swords.
Nicklaus won 18 major titles and was runner-up 19 times.
"Every Sunday, when there's anywhere from five-to-10 people who have a chance to win, about five-to-seven are going to take themselves out of it," Thomas said.
The favorites in a field where everybody is 10/1 or longer odds include 2015 champion Jordan Spieth, 2017 runner-up Justin Rose, world number one Dustin Johnson and two-times champion Bubba Watson.
But the list of potential winners goes on an on -- including, but not limited to, Jason Day, Phil Mickelson, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler, Paul Casey, Sergio Garcia, Hideki Matsuyama and Henrik Stenson.
And occasionally the Masters throws up an unlikely winner, most recently Danny Willett in 2016.
So is this the year for Sweden's Alex Noren? Probably not, but stranger things have happened.
(Reporting by Andrew Both, editing by Ed Osmond)