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IN-FORM RIVALS PRIMED FOR THE ULTIMATE BATTLE.

Byline: Dale Rankin

THIS year's Masters is shaping up to be the ultimate Clash of the Titans.

In the build-up to this season's first Major, Rory McIlroy has beaten Tiger Woods to become world No.1. Luke Donald then went back to the top of the rankings.

A week later Woods came back from another injury scare to win his first PGA Tour title since the 2009 sex scandal.

Throw in a Phil Mickelson victory, two for Hunter Mahan, a first world championship for Justin Rose and the extra spice of McIlroy's rivalry with Lee Westwood and all the ingredients are there at Augusta National for a Masters to savour.

McIlroy is back on the course where he led for the first three days last April, then imploded with a nightmare 80 that took him from four ahead to 10 behind.

For the 22-year-old to bounce back from that with an eight-stroke victory at the US Open only two months later also defied belief, but it was clearly no fluke. In his past 13 tournaments going back to last September he has only once finished outside the top five.

Woods appears to be relishing the challenge of facing McIlroy.

He said: "That's great to see. He has all of the makings of being a great champion for a long period of time. He just needs to get more experienced."

Experience of playing at Augusta has always been viewed as a key ingredient for success.

McIlroy is playing only his fourth Masters, while Woods, hardly a veteran at 36, is already up to 18 once he tees off today Yet Mickelson, hoping to join Woods and Arnold Palmer as a fourtimes winner of the title, is of the opinion that experience might not count for as much as usual this year because of the thunderstorms that have been around this week.

He said: "A lot is going to depend on how soft the course is, how aggressive you can be.

"I think if it plays like this there won't be the big mistakes made by any of the young players, it will be a crowded leaderboard and we'll see a big birdie fest.

"If there's some firmness that comes out and the green speeds get a little bit quicker I think we will see some of the young players make mistakes that will cost them the tournament.

"And the experienced players who position the ball properly and vary their risk-reward shot-making will have an easier time staying on top of the leaderboard."

Part of McIlroy's record-breaking 16-under total in the US Open was attributable to the soft conditions at Congressional, so the rain could be good news for him - and not such good news for Donald.

Not a big-hitter but brilliant in so many other parts of his game, the 34-year-old admits he prefers the course to be "hot and fast".

McIlroy's 80 showed what Augusta National was capable to doing to a player. But on the same day Charl Schwartzel showed what a player could do to the course.

The South African chipped in for birdie at the first, pitched in for eagle on the third and final four holes for a 66 twostroke victory. birdied the and a twoy Mickelson is clearly McIlroy. He said: incredible player. He plays without fear, which is great way to play. a fan of "He's an lays a "When you get soft conditions like at the US Open he's going to light it up. If he ends up learning this golf course, I think he's going to win here number of times."

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birdie at the first, pitched in for MASTERS CLASS 3 Donald, McIlroy and Westwood up for Augusta
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Apr 5, 2012
Words:622
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