| AUGUSTA, Georgia
AUGUSTA, Georgia Bernhard Langer knows a thing or two about winning the Masters and, while he rates Tiger Woods among the favorites this week, he believes up to 60 players are capable of claiming the green jacket on Sunday.
A twice former champion at Augusta National, the 55-year-old German also said he has been no fan of the lengthening of the course and the introduction of rough over the past decade, which he feels have made the layout a brutal test of driving.
"That's why Tiger hasn't won here on a regular basis lately and why Phil Mickelson sometimes has had a hard time here," Langer told Reuters while sitting on the porch in one of the hospitality cabins to the right of the par-four opening hole.
"With his short game, you would think Phil would have won five (Masters) by now but you've got to drive the ball really well. There are a lot of tough driving holes, even though it's a real advantage for someone who can carry the ball 300 yards in the air.
"And these greens, they look large but there are only small pockets and if you don't hit that pocket, you are either off the green or you are going to face a very difficult putt and make three-putts many times."
While short-game magician Mickelson has occasionally struggled with his driving accuracy, he has fared best at the Masters among all the majors, winning the coveted green jacket three times.
World number one Woods is a four-times champion at Augusta National but has surprisingly not triumphed here since 2005, though assorted knee injuries and the breakdown of his marriage have been contributing factors.
However, Woods is now back to full fitness and, following three victories in just five starts on the 2013 PGA Tour, has been installed as an overwhelming favorite to win a 15th major title this week.
"Tiger is certainly one of the favorites but I wouldn't necessarily say he is the hot favorite because you have such a strong field here," said former world number one Langer, who claimed his two green jackets at the Masters in 1985 and 1993.
"I think at least 50, maybe 60, players could win this week. Who would have necessarily thought that Charl Schwartzel would win (in 2011) or that (Louis) Oosthuizen could have won (last year), or even Bubba (Watson, the 2012 champion?)
"They are all great players but they weren't necessarily mentioned among the favorites that week. Then you have Tiger, Phil and Rory (McIlroy) and a bunch of other guys. There are a lot of players who can win and pull it off if they get hot."
Asked what he felt was the biggest difference in Woods' game this year, Langer replied: "He is driving it better, his iron game is really good and his putting is better again. He is probably settled down with his private life too.
"It was very public what he went through with his private life, and it takes its toll. It takes bit of time to get over it I think."
Langer was delighted to see McIlroy return to form last week with a runner-up spot at the Texas Open after the young Northern Irishman had started the year with a lucrative but widely panned equipment change, a struggle to find his swing and a heavily criticised walk-off in frustration at the Honda Classic.
"Give him a bit of slack," said Langer of the twice major champion. "It's difficult to be in the spotlight and every time you throw a club a little bit or you bang it in the ground, you get criticised for showing too much emotion.
"There is a lot of emotion, a lot of pressure and he's in the limelight. Obviously he is desperate to do better, he knows he has not been playing to his potential for the last few months and it's frustrating for him.
"And he's got to vent that frustration somehow. I was pleased he did well last week. He's making a comeback and it's good for the game of golf," said Langer, a global ambassador for Mercedes-Benz which is an international partner of the Masters.
Augusta National, the spiritual home of American golf affectionately regarded as the 'Cathedral of Pines', was controversially stretched by 285 yards for the 2002 Masters.
Though shortened by 10 yards for the 2009 edition, the 7,435-yard course was ranked as the ninth longest to hold a major and the addition of rough and extra trees in recent years has not found favour with Langer.
"I really loved the golf course the way it was before," he said. "It was really the only golf course I knew which had no rough. It was wide fairways and then pine needles and trees. No rough whatsoever.
"But the main thing was that you had angles to work with. You could choose to hit the drive down the left side to have a different angle down the right side to come in at this angle," he gestured with his hands.
"Some of the changes were good but some I think took away from the original design which was playing the angles. It's just very different now."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)