Masters 2012: Tiger Woods v Rory McIlroy, the past against the future

Ernie Els has been there and done everything, from winning major championships to accumulating more money than any man could ever desire.

But as things stand he does not have that which he covets more than anything right now: a place in Thursday's opening round of the 2012 Masters.

There are many criteria for making the field at Augusta National, from being a past Masters champion to a ranking inside the world's top 50, but the South African fulfils none of them. The club invites a few "non-exempt" players every year. Els is not among them. "It is an invitational event and they have their reasons to invite somebody or not, and that's the sad part. I'll probably miss the Masters for the first time in 18 or 19 years. My streak will come to an end, unfortunately," he said earlier this week.

Beneath such acceptance there is a deep-rooted yearning that measures both Els's disappointment and the universal appeal of the Masters. The Open might have more history and a stronger field but the Masters at Augusta National is, to steal a phrase from another sport, the "special one". Beautiful, beguiling, unmissable to the last shot. It has always been thus, from 1934 to last year's classic edition, which featured Rory McIlroy's collapse and Tiger Woods's charge on a final day that ended with South Africa's Charl Schwartzel making birdies at the last four holes to take the green jacket.

Reflecting on that remarkable afternoon, with its multiple storylines and hairpin turns of fortune, one could hardly imagine that tournament golf could be more compelling. Indeed, Sports Illustrated magazine persuasively argued this week that it was the greatest final round in history. Either way it will be a hard act to follow.

Yet the 2012 Masters promises to try and possibly to surpass it. Certainly it is hard to think of a major championship in recent history that has been more eagerly awaited. The 2010 Masters, in which Woods returned from personal scandal, can be discounted in a strictly sporting sense. The anticipation was already high before the former world No1's victory at the Bay Hill Invitational last Sunday, a performance that transformed Woods instantly from a good each-way bet into the tournament favourite. It also set the High Noon scenarios that lies at the heart of this week's tournament. Woods versus Rory McIlroy – all eyes are waiting to see how that battle unfolds.

We have been here many times before, most recently with the many and varied Woods versus Phil Mickelson duels, most of which never lived up to the hype. However, the Woods-McIlroy dynamic is infused with a meaning that goes far beyond some obscure personal animus between the two protagonists. This a contest for the generations and between the generations. It pits experience against youth, the past against the future. Woods will be out to prove that, if his age of dominance is over, then his age of relevance is set to continue for years to come or at least as long as it takes him to overcome Nicklaus's victory benchmark of 18 majors.

The Northern Irishman will be fuelled by the memory of last year, when he frittered away his four-shot lead on the Sunday and eventually finished 15th. He will feel this tournament owes him one.

Then there is the motivation that each will bring to the other. They are friendly enough but, make no mistake, they will be out to assert superiority. The aim is not just to win but to inflict an inferiority complex that will linger for a long time. There are no certainties in major championships but this one can be deposited in the local building society: Woods and McIlroy will both be in contention come next Sunday afternoon.

Whether one of them wins or not is the great unknown. If not, then so be it. There are plenty of others who will be happy to step into the breach. Mickelson has won three times at Augusta and would love to match Woods's record of four green jackets. Luke Donald and Lee Westwood both have the necessary talent and desire to win a major. A victory by either Englishman would be in keeping with Augusta's reputation for allowing the cream to rise. The same goes for last year's champion Schwartzel, for Graeme McDowell and Justin Rose, both of whom have run into form at the right time, and on the American side of the ledger Hunter Mahan. Then there are Adam Scott and Geoff Ogilvy and Dustin Johnson and Jason Day. The list of plausible winners goes on. The possibilities are endless.

No wonder Els is moping that he will not be there. No wonder the world of sport is counting the minutes to Thursday's opening round like kids awaiting Christmas morning. The present is wrapped. In four days it will be time to rip it open and see what is inside.

Powered by article was written by Lawrence Donegan in Augusta, for The Observer on Saturday 31st March 2012 23.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © Keith Allison