There is no greater time of year in sports than early spring.

The baseball season started with a bang last week ? literally, with Barry Bonds hitting four home runs in two days ? and the NCAA basketball tournament culminated in the crowning of a first time National Champion and the return of a five time champion, minus its controversial former coach.

NFL draft talk is heating up, with the first pick already announced and the playoffs are rapidly approaching in hockey and basketball, with nearly every game having postseason implications.

And the azaleas are in full bloom in Augusta, Ga., signifying the start of the 2002 Masters.

Heading into the Masters last year, the big question was whether a Tiger Woods victory would constitute a Grand Slam, since he won the U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championship in 2000.

Woods proceeded to win his second Masters, creating a controversy with no precedent ? after all, it was previously inconceivable that a golfer could win four consecutive Major Tournaments, regardless of whether it took one or two calendar years. Whether Woods officially won the Grand Slam or not, that he held all four Major Championship trophies at once is a remarkable feat.

Despite recent claims by Roy Jones Jr. that his boxing career is the most dominating in the history of sports, it is Woods who has been the most dominating athlete over a single event, a one year period, and although he’s only 27, an entire career.

Woods is no longer the defending champion of the other three Majors, but he looks to place the Green Jacket on his own back when the Masters ends Sunday evening.

However, although he is the favorite to repeat as champion, he faces some very stiff competition.

The world’s second-ranked player, Phil Mickelson, currently holds the title of “Best Player Never to Win a Major,” and is looking to use this year’s Masters as an opportunity to remove that dubious label.

Lefty finished third last year behind only Woods and David Duval. He has played well in tournaments leading up to Augusta, including a third place finish at the BellSouth Classic last weekend.

David Duval devoted his entire winter last year to a Major Tournament victory, and his first opportunity of the year begins today. If not for Tiger Woods, it would have paid off.

Duval finished second at the 2001 Masters and won his first Major at the British Open several months later. Augusta National suits Duval’s game well, and he should be in contention when the final few pairings cross Rae’s Creek on Sunday afternoon.

Ernie Els is one of the top pressure performers in golf. He’s won the U.S. Open twice and he finished second at Augusta in 2000 and sixth last year.

A very long hitter, the major changes made to Augusta National during the past few months play right into Els’ abilities. He might have the best chance of anyone to dethrone Woods.

Playing in his fourth Masters, Retief Goosen has never done particularly well, finishing 40th last year. He was a relative unknown until he won the 2001 U.S. Open in a playoff, but has played consistently well since then. He won the BellSouth Classic last week and should earn a prominent spot on the leaderboard once again this weekend.

Like Goosen, Sergio Garcia has yet to be in contention on the final day of The Masters, or any Major except the 1999 PGA Championship for that matter. As a top-five player in the world though, Garcia is due for another strong showing in a Major.

In the past it was thought that Garcia may not have been mature enough to handle a demanding course such as Augusta. He’s older now than Woods was when he won his first Green Jacket in 1997 and, in his fourth Masters, more experienced as well. Look for Garcia to stick around until the very end.

As a darkhorse, Jesper Parnevik isn’t thought of in the same class as Duval, Lefty, or Garcia, and therefore doesn’t have the same pressure. He’s won on the Tour before, and consistently finishes in the top ten at the British Open, so he knows about being in contention heading up the 72nd fairway of a Major. Parnevik could surprise some people with a top five finish.


Duval will have a decent tournament, finishing somewhere in the top ten, and Garcia will play well, but is still at least a year away from serious contention

Goosen has never won two consecutive tournaments and isn’t about to this time around.

Parnevik will make people recognize him for more than just his inverted cap-bill and bright pants

Mickelson’s streak will continue for one more tournament until he wins the U.S. Open at Bethpage later this year.

Els will pose the most serious threat to Woods, but in the end will fall just short as Tiger will become the first player since Nick Faldo in 1990 to repeat as champion.

Swidler can be reached at

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