AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The Masters begins today at Augusta National Golf Club with the smart money riding on Fred Couples, Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros. The safest bet of the week, though, is that there will be first-rate theater on the final holes early Sunday evening.
The tournament has delivered a stirring finish for six straight years, with three playoffs and three one-stroke wins decided on the 72nd hole, the latter including Ian Woosnam's victory a year ago. Not since 1983 has a Masters been decided by more than two strokes.
There is every reason to believe this year's edition will carry on the tradition.
Golf insiders are hard pressed to remember a time when this many of the world's top golfers were playing so well at the same time.
No one is playing better than Couples, 32, an American who has dominated the PGA Tour this year with 22 straight subpar rounds, two tournament titles and five top-three finishes, finally playing to the potential his Picasso swing always promised.
"We're playing for second these days when we play against Freddie," Tom Watson said.
Couples' 13th-place finish at the Tournament Players Championship two weeks ago suggested his hot hand was beginning to cool, but he took last week off to collect himself, showing up courtside at the Final Four in Minneapolis.
He has finished in the top five at the Masters twice in the previous four years, but his overall record in major tournaments is mediocre, leading to whispers that he would be the top underachiever of his generation. With his short game finally matching the standard of his long drives, however, he has his best chance to prove that wrong.
"His confidence is very high," Woosnam said. "He's got as good a chance as he is ever going to have."
No one is saying Faldo is an underachiever, of course.
The Englishman has won four majors, including the Masters in 1989 and 1990. He blamed his 12th-place finish of a year ago on a lack of tournament preparation, and came to the United States earlier this year to get used to the different conditions. He finished second at the TPC behind Davis Love III, his steady game again resembling its championship form.
"I feel very good," Faldo said. "Ready to take it on."
Also back is Ballesteros, another two-time Masters winner, who has rediscovered his game after a two-year slump that had people wondering whether he was finished.
Acknowledging now that he was suffering from one of those mysterious confidence crises that occasionally strike golfers, Ballesteros, 35, has won twice on the European Tour this year.
His Spanish countryman, Jose-Maria Olazabal, 26, also has won twice in Europe this year. Widely considered the world's best golfer never to win a major title, he was tied for the lead after 71 holes at the Masters a year ago, but bogeyed the last hole and watched Woosnam win with a par.
Other golfers to watch include Greg Norman, who finished second at last week's tour stop in New Orleans and seems in top form; Ben Crenshaw, whose brilliant putting has delivered four top four Masters finishes in the last five years; and Love, a long hitter whose victory at the TPC suggested that he, like Couples, was ready to begin living up to billing.
One golfer not given much of a chance is Woosnam, who has been erratic since winning the title a year ago.
No golfer in the field will attract more attention than John Daly, the Bunyonesque figure who become a folk hero by winning the PGA Championship eight months ago.
He has been involved in a lawsuit with a former girlfriend, and his game has suffered, but the suit has been dropped and he says his head is clear. His long drives make him an instant contender at Augusta.
The weather forecast for the four days is for mostly clear skies and warm temperatures, which should make for low scores and a lot of cheers echoing through the tall pines.
And, if recent history holds, a finish to remember.