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By Robin Milbrand

From the old-timers teeing off to start the tournament, the drama of the Amen Corner, to the wearing of the green jacket, the Masters Golf Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia is a sports event not to be missed. It's the humble opinion of this reporter that Augusta is the most beautiful and dramatic golf course in the world, with a layout fit for shot making.

The field consists of the most skilled golfers, and they arrive from all corners of the world to prove it.

Will this year's winner be an established pro like Phil Mickelson or Ernie Els, or a young upstart such as Martin Kaymer or Rory McIlroy?

Will Tiger Woods sleepwalk through this year's tournament, or return to his previous glory years and wow the crowds?

Who will lead after the opening round, and will they be able to sustain it?

For you handicappers out there, below is the list of the top 10 betting favorites, followed by their world ranking and their current odds to win the Green Jacket:

Tiger Woods, 5, 6-1
Phil Mickelson, 6, 8-1
Martin Kaymer, 1, 15.5-1
Lee Westwood, 2, 16-1
Rory McIlroy, 8, 24-1
Graeme Mc Dowell, 4, 31-1
Paul Casey, 7, 32-1
Luke Donald, 3, 34-1
Dustin Johnson, 11, 40-1
Nick Watney, 15, 38-1

For the first time, there are more golfers from the British Isles (five) in the top 10 than from the United States (four). Also, never before has the world's No. 1 player come from Germany (Martin Kaymer), and no one this year hails from Asia or Africa, such as Ernie Els, Vijay Singh or Retief Goosen. The third-best odds to win are greater than 15-1, proving that the field is deep with possible winners.

To warm you up for the spectacle that is the Masters, below is a list of my five favorite modern Masters stories:

1. In my opinion, the best modern Masters story happened in 1986, when a supposedly washed-up a 46-year-old golf icon named jack Nicklaus won the Masters, blowing by 12 other golfers on the back nine to card an astounding 30 strokes.

Jack hadn't won a major in the previous six years, and this was the last of his record 18 major championship victories. It was, perhaps, his greatest.

2. In 1997, a 21-year-old phenomenon named Tiger Woods blistered through Augusta, winning his first major with an incredible record 18 under -- his closest competitor was 12 strokes back! He averaged a whopping 323 yards per drive and never three potted in four days!

Clifford Roberts, the former Augusta National Golf Club chairman, had once infamously said "As long as I'm alive, golfers will be white and caddies will be black." I guess Nostradamus he wasn't!

3. In 1996, Greg Norman was leading the Masters by six shots after three rounds. On Sunday, he went through four-and-a-half hours of hell and lost to his playing partner, Nick Faldo, who destroyed him by 11 shots.

Norman hit a series of wild and erratic shots that shocked the crowd, and his lead disappeared faster than Spiro Agnew from the White House.

Faldo took home the Green Jacket, and on the 18 hole gave Norman a sympathetic hug and whispered in his ear, "Don't let the bastards get you down," referring to the negative media attention he would receive in the clubhouse after the round.

4. In 1968, at the end of four rounds, Bob Goalby and Argentinean golfer Roberto Di Vincenzo were tied for the lead. Di Vincenzo accidentally mismarked his scorecard (he gave himself a four on 17, instead of a three), and was disqualified from the Masters without winning a dime! He would never recover and had no top 10s in any major championship for the rest of his professional career.

5. In 2004, Phil Nickelson, who up until that time was branded one of sports biggest choke artists, rallied on Sunday and won the Masters.

Even though he was once No. 1 in the world, he had appeared in 43 major tournaments and never won until that tournament. Talk about getting the monkey off his back. When he sank the winning on 18, he leaped into the air in pure joy. Player partner Chris DiMarco later wisecracked, "He had at least a half second of hang time."

Now for the 2011 Masters my prediction for this year's winner is Tiger Woods. The golf world has been waiting for him to put it all together again and I think this year at Augusta is the place. My sleeper pick is Rory McIlroy from Ireland.

In closing, I propose a tip for all you duffers out there (myself included) when you hear FORE on the golf course, don't look up -- DUCK!

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 5, 2011