AUGUSTA, Ga. Tiger Woods is still the main attraction at the Masters.
A half-dozen grown men were walking along the 11th fairway Wednesday morning when they scampered into the woods and huddled around a golf ball, gawking as though it were a meteorite that descended onto Augusta National.
They kneeled over and held their cameras inches from the ball a swoosh on the right side and ''TIGER'' printed on the top and clicked away. Other fans came over and started passing the men their cameras for more pictures.
And it was only a golf ball.
The guy who hit the tee shot some 50 yards off line right of the trees, right of the gallery and into a small forest of Georgia pines never showed up. A marshal eventually broke up the crowd and heaved the ball to Woods' caddie.
Woods is used to this kind of star treatment at Augusta National, where he shattered scoring records as a 21-year-old and already had three green jackets by the time he was 26.
But he no longer is the main event.
Phil Mickelson is the defending champion when the 69th Masters begins Thursday, and many believe he is primed to join Woods, Nick Faldo and Jack Nicklaus as the only back-to-back winners of a green jacket.
His victory Monday in the BellSouth Classic was his third of the year. And his confidence soars even higher just driving down Magnolia Lane, walking upstairs to the champions locker room, being on a golf course where a year ago he birdied five of the last seven holes to capture his first major.
''Being able to come through when I needed to gives me a little of extra confidence,'' Mickelson said.
Vijay Singh is No. 1 in the world, and has been for all but two weeks in March. And while his only victory this year came in the second week of the season, he is the only player who seems to be around the top of the leaderboard no matter where he plays.
''Vijay is the one that is playing the best at the moment,'' Sergio Garcia said.
Ernie Els is seeking redemption at Augusta National. Retief Goosen is seeking recognition. Those two South Africans, along with Mickelson and Singh, all have won majors in the nearly three years since Woods last captured a coveted Grand Slam event.
''If you look at guys who are at the top in the world ranking, and the guys who have won major championships, you know they can handle the heat,'' Woods said. ''You know they're not going to make a mistake.''
He hasn't had this much competition since winning the first of his eight majors at Augusta National in 1997.
On perhaps the most famous stage in golf, the latest battle begins to unfold Thursday with a Masters that is being billed more as a free-for-all than a heavyweight prize fight.
And while top players are getting most of the attention, another familiar theme threatened to intervene.
A line of violent thunderstorms began working its way toward Augusta National even as the undercard the Par 3 Tournament was being held Wednesday.
Weather already has interrupted play in eight of 14 tournaments, and one forecast said the course could get as much as an inch of rain about the time the Masters gets under way.
''See you Friday,'' Woods said jokingly as he left the course after a nine-hole practice round, knowing that his 1:33 p.m. starting time might be pushed back.
Perhaps the adage this year will be the Masters doesn't start until the back nine Monday.
If nothing else, rain figures to soften an Augusta National course that has been firm, fiery, fast and frightening, with players remarking they had never seen the greens this fast so early in the week.
That could be an advantage for the longer hitters, although accuracy is underrated at the Masters. And to see Woods send his tee shot on the 11th hole so far to the right only raises more questions about his game.
No one doubts he can win because he is the best at limiting his mistakes, and because he already has won twice on the PGA Tour this year, including a stirring rally to beat Mickelson at Doral.
But which Woods will show up?
One week he looks like a world beater.
The next week looks like he doesn't know where in the world his ball is going.
The dominance he showed in 2000, when he was No. 1 by a mile after a nine-victory season that included three straight majors, is no longer there.
''I don't want to get back to 2000,'' Woods said. ''I want to become better. That's the whole idea of making a (swing) change. I've been scrutinized over the past year or so for doing that, and I'm starting to see the fruits of it now. I've got to continue down the path and continue working hard.''
Woods has gone 10 majors without winning, matching the longest drought of his career. His last major victory was the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, and the landscape was much different then.
Mickelson still hadn't won a major. Singh was toiling in obscurity. Els was on the verge of resurrecting his game, although he had gone five years since his second U.S. Open title.
No one was close to Woods.
Now, they are all as tightly bunched as fans who squeeze in behind the ropes to watch them slug it out.
''It's a totally different ballgame at the moment, with guys playing at a better level than a couple of years ago,'' Els said. ''Yeah, it's a little different out there. But Tiger is still Tiger. He's always a player you've got to really watch, even when he's not playing very well.''
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