The last time the world's greatest golfers gathered for a Major, Tiger Woods paid Phil Mickelson a huge compliment.

Not by anything he said, but in something he did.

The world No 1's decision to fly home from the US PGA Championship last August when he still had a chance to be in a play-off the following morning simply amazed people.

But it did reveal that whatever he thinks of Mickelson as a person - they have never been close and didn't the last Ryder Cup show that - he holds him in the highest regard as a player.

It was left-hander Mickelson who led when rain halted the final round at Baltusrol and while he still had some tough holes to come on Monday morning Woods, in the clubhouse two behind, conceded defeat and departed.

Now the time has come for the next Major - the US Masters starting at Augusta today - and the two Americans very much hold centre stage.

One is the defending champion, a man going for a fifth victory in the event that would leave him just one behind Jack Nicklaus' record. And he is still only 30.

The other is going for his second Major in a row - halfway towards emulating Woods' unique 2000/2001 feat of holding all four at the same time. And he has just posted the third biggest margin of victory on the US Tour in more than 50 years.

A month ago everything pointed to there being one overwhelming favourite for Augusta.

Woods had won three of his first five tournaments of the year while the other members of golf's "Big Five" - Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Mickelson - had not been able to muster a single victory between them.

But Woods' finishes of 20th and 22nd in his last two starts and his skipping practice to visit his gravely ill father has made some wonder if the Masters has just come at the wrong time this year.

They may care to be reminded, however, that in the same two events last year he was 23rd and 53rd and that did not prevent him adding to a Major haul that with the Open at St Andrews as well now stands at ten.

But such was the majesty of Mickelson's 13-shot win in Atlanta on Sunday - plus the fact he has had seven successive top ten finishes at the Masters, including his victory two years ago - that he is now a clear second favourite - the best anybody can usually hope for in this "Age of the Tiger".

"It certainly gives him a shot of confidence, there's no doubt about that," said Woods.

"Any time you get a win before Augusta you're going to feel pretty good. This is a nice time to feel good about your game."

Mickelson insists he has no concerns about having peaked a week early.

"The way I look at it is I was trying to get my game sharp for this week - and I think it's fairly sharp now," said the 35-year-old, whose decision to have one driver for fades and another for draws was hailed by Nicklaus as "a pretty darned good move."

So now the golfing world waits to see whose week it is going to be. Who can produce the moments of magic that come on this course more than any other.

A year ago, of course, there was Woods' incredible chip in at the short 16th, a shot that will live long in the memory.

And, looking further back, every five years something truly special does seem to happen.

In 2001 it was the "Tiger Slam"; in 1996 Greg Norman's collapse and Nick Faldo's charge to victory; in 1991 Ian Woosnam making it four British winners in a row; in 1986 Nicklaus' 18th, last and most thrilling Major triumph.

Did I say four British winners there? It seems such a long time ago - no European, let alone a British or Irish player, has won any Major since Paul Lawrie at the 1999 Open.

What there is no doubt about, however, is that among the current crop are several perfectly capable of taki ng advantage if Woods, Mickelson, Singh, Els or Goosen do not perform as they can.

Luke Donald was third on his debut last year and is now at an all-time high of ninth in the world.

David Howell beat Woods head-to-head in Shanghai last November, world No 6 Sergio Garcia will surely put it all together in a Major one of these times and Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington and Lee Westwood all have victories in America to boost their confidence.

Jose Maria Olazabal, twice a Masters champion and twice a runner-up on the US Tour this season, would surprise nobody by getting into contention even on a course lengthened as it is.

Thomas Bjorn was second to Mickelson at the PGA eight months ago, his third runners-up finish in Majors.

Paul McGinley's 2005 was the best of his career. Henrik Stenson is a rising star of the game.

And then there is Colin Montgomerie, of course. Winner of an eighth Order of Merit last year and second to Woods in the Open. True he has missed his last four halfway cuts and has a poor record at Augusta, but it would be wrong to dismiss his chances.

This is the 42-year-old Scot's 57th Major. When Mark O'Meara ended an 18-year wait for a Major in the 1998 Masters it was at his 57th attempt. ..SUPL: