Augusta: Tiger Woods is a winner once again. Rory McIlroy is a major champion playing well with bad memories to erase. Luke Donald and Justin Rose are on form. And Phil Mickelson is as dangerous as ever.

For all the dramatic golf produced at iconic Augusta National since the Masters debuted in 1934, those stars have set the stage for possibly the most epic showdown of them all when the 76th Masters tees off next Thursday.

"Each year there's a group of guys that go in playing well and you've always got guys that have done well there," defending champion Charl Schwartzel said. "Seems like the guys prepare harder to play the Masters. So it's always tough."

Last year's Masters featured a thrilling back-nine Sunday shootout with half a dozen leaders, settled only by an unprecedented closing run of four birdies in a row by first-time major winner Schwartzel of South Africa.

"There was a lot going on," World No. 1 Donald said. "There were multiple people having opportunities to win and that's what makes Augusta exciting."

As tremendous as that finish was, it could pale in comparison to a battle over the last holes on April 8 involving McIlroy, Woods and Donald, who were in last year's green jacket tussle.

Woods won his final Masters tuneup at Bay Hill to snap a win drought dating to November of 2009 at the Australian Masters, just before the notorious sex scandal that destroyed his marriage and iconic marketing image.

Injuries nagged Woods last year but a sore left Achilles tendon in March was treated and Woods played eight days in a row with no problem, including a Masters practice round and his long-awaited first US win in 2 1/2 years.

"It feels good to have that little bit of a boost going into Augusta," Woods said. "It's not like winning a major championship or anything but it certainly feels good."

World No. 6 Woods, a 14-time major winner chasing the record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, seeks a fifth green jacket and his 73rd US PGA title, which would match Nicklaus at second on the all-time list behind Sam Snead's 82.

"I've gone into Augusta with wins and without wins," Woods said. "I understand how to play Augusta National and it's just a matter of executing the game plan."

Northern Ireland's McIlroy led after the first three rounds last year and also at the 10th tee on Sunday before a nightmare back-nine collapse led to a closing 80.

He responded in his very next major by winning the US Open and was World No. 1 for two weeks in March, but the lessons of his Masters defeat still resonate.

"I had a lot clearer picture in my head of what I needed to do to control myself (at the US Open)," he said. "At the Masters it was all new to me. I led tournaments before but to lead the Masters going into that last run, that was something a lot different.

"I was able to prove to myself that I did learn an awful lot at the Masters. I realize I'm hopefully going to have plenty more chances to win that jacket.

"But hopefully a day like that never happens again."

McIlroy took three weeks off ahead of the Masters and has changed little about his approach.

"If I can do the exact same thing this year as I did last for 63 holes, I'll be doing OK," McIlroy said. "Maybe I would finish it off a little bit better."

England's Donald, who won an unprecedented US and European money title double last year, still seeks his first major crown.

"I feel like my game is good enough right now to win majors," Donald said. "There are still things I can improve on to give myself better opportunities. I don't feel like there is a huge weakness.

"If I can win four times in a year, I should be able to win a major."

Donald has changed his mindset about majors.

"When you get to majors you want to be feeling very comfortable, not working on anything," he said. "That's probably something I haven't done that well in the past. I've gone searching for things rather than just playing."

Left-hander Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion and four-time major winner, won in February at Pebble Beach and figures to be a factor again.

"I have a pretty good understanding of how to play Augusta," said Mickelson. "I know how I want to attack it given each pin placement. Now it's just a matter of refining and getting ready so it's there when I need it."

Also learning with every Masters start is England's Rose, who won the World Golf Championships event at Doral in March.

"As long as you're missing it in the correct spots, thinking your way around Augusta can be more valuable than playing well," Rose said. "You get guys that are favorites because they know how to play the course."b

(Agencies)