RORY McIlroy finds himself a betting favourite at the Masters, the old man of his group for the first two rounds at age 24 and excited to test Augusta National.
As the sun sank over the layout's trademark pine trees on the eve of the 78th Masters, cool conditions were expected to give way to four days of warm and perfect weather, firming the formidable and undulating greens on one of golf's greatest stages.
"I would like to see that because soft conditions seem to bunch up the field a little bit," McIlroy said. "Firmer greens and firmer conditons definitely separates it, which is a good thing."
World No.9 McIlroy, a two-time major champion, was on pace for a start-to-finish Masters win in 2011 before a last-nine collapse Sunday left him sharing 15th.
The Northern Ireland star answered by winning his next major, the 2011 US Open at Congressional, and added the 2012 PGA Championship.
The Masters was the major that got away but McIlroy is seen as a sure contender this week in a wide-open field of green jacket hopefuls.
Trouble is, McIlroy said, these foes are mostly the same US PGA Tour players he has not conquered since the 2012 tour playoffs.
"That's why I'm saying there are so many guys here this week that will feel like they have a chance to win," he said.
Two of them are his playing partners, 20-year-old Jordan Spieth and 23-year-old fellow American Patrick Reed. Both are among a record 24 Masters newcomers trying to become the first first-timer to win since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
"OK, it's Augusta and there is a certain element of experience that you need to play around here," McIlroy said.
"But you've got guys that are coming here for the first time like Patrick Reed or Jordan Spieth and they are going to stand on the first tee on Thursday and think, 'I've got a great shot at winning this tournament.'"
Spieth, ranked 13th, is best known for winning last July to become the first teen champion at a PGA event since 1931.
Reed, a PGA winner three times in the past eight months who is ranked 23rd, is best known for delcaring himself a top-five player after his triumph last month at Doral.
Want video tips delivered straight to your inbox? Subscribe to iseekgolf.com newsletters.