By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Had this week's Masters been staged last November, Henrik Stenson would have been an overwhelming favorite to win his first major title after producing a barn-storming finish to his 2013 campaign.
Five months on, though, the Swedish world number three has very carefully played down his chances of clinching a maiden victory at Augusta National, mainly due to his mediocre record at the venue and a less than impressive start to this year.
"When you're coming to a big tournament like this one, you always want to play a little bit better and be a little bit more prepared," Stenson told reporters on Tuesday before continuing his preparations for the season's opening major.
"But we are in decent shape. Putting has been a little bit off maybe the last couple of weeks, but that doesn't matter, because you don't need to putt well around Augusta, right?" said the Swede, who is known for his dry wit.
The interview room erupted in laughter, every reporter in there knowing full well the importance of a razor-sharp short game at Augusta National to negotiate the heavily contoured greens.
"So that would be the one area where I need to spend a little bit of extra time these last couple of days here," said Stenson, a four-times winner on the PGA Tour who has recorded one top 10 on the U.S. circuit this season in six starts.
"My game could be better; it could be worse. But experience-wise, I've played this tournament so many times and I had some good preparation Monday, Tuesday last week, so I don't really feel like it's going to be down to knowledge or not preparing here on site if I don't have a good week.
"Just go out there and try and play solid and keep patient for three, three-and-a-half days, and hopefully have a chance on the back nine. If you're up on that leaderboard on Sunday afternoon, you're always in with a chance."
Many golf fans will be keeping a close eye on the Swede this week after his remarkably successful campaign last year.
In September, Stenson triumphed twice on the PGA Tour on the way to clinching FedExCup honors along with the playoff bonus of $10 million. Two months later, he won Dubai's DP World Tour Championship to end 2013 as the European Tour's number one.
Asked whether he had a more positive mindset heading into this week's Masters because of his 2013 successes, Stenson replied: "I don't think I questioned my ability even before last year of being able to win some good tournaments.
"That was the one thing I really felt after winning the (PGA Tour's) Players Championship in '09 is that it was no different really on that Sunday afternoon the way I played and then handled myself.
"The guys that I beat would be no different compared to winning a major championship. I know that if I do the right things, I can beat most of them, or all of them, and it's just about being up there (in contention)."
With world number one Tiger Woods not playing this week after having back surgery for a pinched nerve, Stenson is headed by only second-ranked Australian Adam Scott, who will be defending the Masters title he won last year in a playoff.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)