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Deep field, and maybe Tiger, chase green jacket at Masters

AUGUSTA -- Hideki Matsuyama has gotten to relive his Masters Tournament championship every week he's played over the past year.

That first tee introduction every Thursday has been a weekly highlight, a combination of some of the sweetest words in golf.

Reigning Masters champion.

Thursday will be the last time he hears it - unless, of course, he can win it again.

The world's best will do their best to make sure that doesn't happen over the next four days at Augusta National Golf Club.

"It's been a great year. It's great to be back here at Augusta," said Matsuyama, who added wins in October and January but has been fighting a stiff neck for the last month. "I feel very proud and honored to be here as the defending champion. It's been a great year with wins at ZOZO and Sony. Last couple of weeks, though, have been a struggle. Hopefully I can find my game and be a worthy defending champion."

The year's first major features a star-studded combination of favorites and question marks, and the biggest mystery of the year to date will be solved Thursday morning for the 10:34 tee time - that's the one belonging to five-time champion Tiger Woods, who intends to play but is very much a game-time decision.

Woods wouldn't be here if he didn't think he can win, but this will be the greatest physical test he's ever faced after a horrific car accident more than a year ago.

"I can hit it just fine. I don't have any qualms about what I can do physically from a golf standpoint. It's now walking is the hard part," said Woods, playing in his first event since the November Masters of 2020. "This is normally not an easy walk to begin with. Now given the conditions that my leg is in, it gets even more difficult. You know, 72 holes is a long road, and it's going to be a tough challenge and a challenge that I'm up for."

Woods is the headliner every time he tees it up - and even when he doesn't - but the 86th edition of the Masters has plenty of other compelling storylines.

Reigning U.S. Open Jon Rahm is a narrow betting favorite, and that breakthrough victory last June at Torrey Pines lifted a weight off his shoulders. Winning his first major was a relief, but he still feels pressure to join Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Sergio Garcia as Spaniards to win the Masters.

Rahm has finished in the top 10 in each of the last four Masters, and last year he tied for fifth after a final-round 66. He knows he's played well here, even if he hasn't necessarily put himself in position to win heading into the back nine on Sunday, and he's not putting much thought into what the gamblers think about his chances.

"I couldn't care any less what the odds say. I mean, I'm not looking at it," he said. "I like to think I'm the favorite myself in my mind, right? But I'm not worried about what the other players are doing. I'm just going out there to shoot the lowest score I can, and hopefully that's enough. I never really pay attention to that."

Rahm's long run as the top-ranked player in the Official World Golf Ranking just came to an end, thanks to a surging Scottie Scheffler. The 2014 Junior Invitational at Sage Valley champion has won three of his last five starts, and he's finished in the top 20 in each of his previous two Masters appearances. 

"The last two months have been pretty good," he said. "I've been playing some good golf. Definitely not going to take it for granted and hoping to keep it rolling this week. My game feels like it's in a pretty good spot. Definitely looking forward to the challenge of playing this golf course this week."

Cameron Smith and Justin Thomas are right behind Rahm as betting favorites, and Smith enters the week with momentum after a win at the Players Championship thanks to a record-setting putting performance. 

Speaking of a hot putter, Jordan Spieth can't be counted it if he's rolling the rock the way he has so many times at Augusta National.

Also among the names atop the list are 2020 Masters champ Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, who for the eighth time will tee it up at the Masters attempting to complete the career Grand Slam.

A slightly different challenge awaits this week, as it does every year at Augusta National. Alterations to the 11th and 15th holes were a hot topic, as was the lack of changes to 13.

Rough weather Tuesday and Wednesday cut short practice rounds and the Par 3 Contest, but the tournament rounds should be dry, windy and occasionally chilly.

Thursday morning marks the long-awaited return to major championship golf - it's been nearly nine full months since Collin Morikawa captured the Open Championship for his second career major. 

It also marks Matsuyama's last day as Masters champion, though that and so much more can change by Sunday afternoon.