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Preview: The 2012 Masters

Taking a look at the 76th Masters, which begins Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club:

Five storylines:

1. Can Tiger Woods win his fifth green jacket?

It’s been seven years since Woods last won the Masters, beating Chris DiMarco in a playoff. He hasn’t won a major championship since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. But with his victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational a week ago, Woods confirmed his return to prominence. He’s been stuck on 14 major championships for a long time.

2. Will Rory McIlroy get redemption?

For three days last April, Rory McIlroy was borderline magnificent at the Masters. Then came Sunday and a final-round 80 that included his playing a shot from beside a cabin on the 10th hole and four-putting the 12th green. Two months later, he vanquished the field at the U.S. Open and now he’s trading the No. 1 spot in the world with Luke Donald. Many believe this is his week.

3. Will there be a new major champion?

Donald and Lee Westwood are first and third, respectively, in the world rankings but neither has won a major. Westwood has played in 12 Masters but managed only two top-10 finishes, which might speak to his putting more than anything. Donald has three top-10s in seven Masters appearances including a third-place in 2005. He’s nothing if not steady. And then there’s Steve Stricker. His track record at Augusta isn’t very good – five missed cuts in 11 starts – but if it’s about putting, it’s hard to leave him out of the discussion.

4. The Big Three – again

Gary Player joins Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus on the first tee Thursday morning for the ceremonial opening tee shots. Among them, they won seven Masters in a row starting in 1960. Nicklaus and Palmer won three apiece while Player won once in that span.

5. Beyond the obvious

Once you get past the favorites, who might be able to come in like Charl Schwartzel last year and win the green jacket?

Justin Rose looks ready to win a major. Same for Hunter Mahan. Keegan Bradley keeps hanging around leader boards. And what if Bubba Watson is in the hunt on Sunday afternoon?

Local connections: Charlotte residents Martin Laird, Robert Karlsson, Webb Simpson and Johnson Wagner are in the field. Others with Carolinas connections include Jonathan Byrd (Clemson), Tim Clark (N.C. State), Lucas Glover (Clemson), Bill Haas (Wake Forest), Kyle Stanley (Clemson), Dustin Johnson (Coastal Carolina), Mark Wilson (North Carolina) and Bubba Watson (part-time Lexington resident).

By the numbers:

1 Champion who closed the final round with four consecutive birdies (Charl Schwartzel, 2011)

8 Number of times a round has been rained out

75 Highest first-round score by a champion (Craig Stadler, 1982)

91 Age of Paul Runyan, the oldest ever to play the par-3 event (2000)

506 Number of birdies Jack Nicklaus made in his Masters career

Did You Know...

• Only four players have birdied the 18th hole to win the Masters by a stroke. (Arnold Palmer 1960; Sandy Lyle 1988; Mark O’Meara 1998; Phil Mickelson 2004).

• Of players who have played at least 100 competitive rounds in the Masters, Fred Couples has the all-time lowest scoring average (71.90).

• Since cumulative stats began in 1942, the three most difficult holes at the Masters have been, in order, No. 10, No. 12 and No. 11.

• Jack Nicklaus won six Masters and finished second four times, tying him with Ben Hogan and Tom Weiskopf for most runner-up finishes.

• The main clubhouse building, originally a manor house at an indigo plantation, was built in 1854.

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