AUGUSTA, Ga. – Rory McIlroy thought the Masters would be the first major he won. Now it's the only major he's missing.
Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer once thought Tiger Woods might win as many green jackets as they did combined — 10 — and that audacious prediction still looked remotely possible when Woods picked up his fourth title at age 29 with that magical chip-in behind the 16th green and a 15-foot birdie putt to win in a playoff.
That was 10 years ago.
Woods hasn't won the Masters since, and now it's not a matter of whether he can win but if he would even play. That became big news when Woods announced Friday he would return from a two-month hiatus at the grandest stage in golf.
The 79th Masters, which starts Thursday, rarely lacks drama.
Woods has played only 47 holes at a combined 15-over par this year, including a career-high 82 in the Phoenix Open. The Masters is the only major where he has made the cut every time as a pro, which is sure to be tested this year.
Speeding off in the other direction is McIlroy, who will try to slip on that green jacket and complete the career Grand Slam.
"We'll see how determined he is," Martin Kaymer said. "Because at the end of the day, it's all about his own will and his own discipline and practice, how much he puts into it. Because we all know he's good enough to win every week, to win many more majors."
McIlroy figured he would have this one by now. He was 21 with curly locks tumbling out from his cap when he walked to the first tee in 2011 with a four-shot lead, the largest at Augusta National going into the final round since Woods broke 20 records in his watershed Masters victory in 1997.
It just didn't turn out the same way. Not even close.
Over the next four hours, McIlroy was in the trees and beyond the cabins, in a creek and among the azaleas. He shot 80 that day and trudged off the course to sympathetic applause. He was compared more with Greg Norman than Tiger Woods.
Four years later, he goes to the Masters on the cusp of joining the most elite group in golf history. Only five players have completed the career Grand Slam. Woods was the most recent in 2000, and before that it was Jack Nicklaus in 1966. The others are Gary Player (1965), Ben Hogan (1953) and Gene Sarazen (1935).
What brought McIlroy to this moment in history has as much to do with failure as success.
"During your losses is where you learn the most," he said. "I've always said that the last round at Augusta in '11 was a huge learning curve for me, and I took a lot from that day, just how I approach final rounds, and especially when you're in the lead and there's a bit of pressure there."
He signed his card, did a few interviews that was cleaning out his locker when he was surrounded by reporters. McIlroy showed remarkable poise that evening as he spoke evenly and honestly.
"Acceptance is a big part of dealing with losses," he said. "I accepted I didn't have a good day. I accepted it was a good chance to get my first major. It was over and done with."
Turns out he was just getting started.
Two months later, McIlroy shattered the scoring record at rain-softened Congressional to win the U.S. Open by eight shots. A year later, he blew away the field at Kiawah Island for an eight-shot win at the PGA Championship. Last summer, no one got closer than two shots of McIlroy all weekend on his way to a British Open title. And for good measure, he added a second straight major at the PGA Championship.
No one needs additional pressure at the Masters. The golf course is enough to do that.
"The genius of Augusta is that it makes you nervous," Geoff Ogilvy said. "It does that all week."
What might help take some of the attention off McIlroy — at least until the opening round — is the return of Woods. He brings buzz to golf. He makes people watch, even if no one has any idea what to expect. There has been so much speculation about his game, even his future, over the last two months. Now everyone get to see for themselves.
Woods didn't play the Masters for the first time a year ago because of back surgery and ultimately kept him out for more than half the year, and even when he did play, it wasn't the kind of golf that has been associated with a 14-time major champion.
He is an old 39 with five surgeries and trauma off the golf course over the last five years.
The game is getting younger.
Jordan Spieth nearly supplanted Woods as the youngest champion last year when he had a two-shot lead with 11 holes to play. Spieth is coming off a victory at Innisbrook and a runner-up finish in the Texas Open. Jimmy Walker won the Texas Open to become the first multiple winner on the PGA Tour this season. Not since 1994 has it taken this long — 20 events — for someone to win for a second time.
Dustin Johnson returned from a six-month break for "personal challenges" by winning at Doral and losing in a playoff at Riviera. Jason Day finally appears healthy and has the hunger to fulfill his explosive talent with a major championship.
Not to be overlooked is Bubba Watson, the defending champion who is on the cusp of joining an elite group of his own. Another victory — and yes, "Bubba Golf" seems to work quite well at Augusta — would give him as many green jackets as Phil Mickelson and Sam Snead, one fewer than Woods and Arnold Palmer.
All signs, however, point to McIlroy.
He is the best player in golf since Woods, though he is not the same player. Woods was predictable. McIlroy can go from spectacular to ordinary without notice, sometimes over an entire summer (2012), and entire year (2013) or even one round — like the 2011 Masters.
Four days will determine whether he gets a chance at redemption and a place in history. For Woods, just getting to play four days might be progress.