By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - If a standout movie is guaranteed by a stellar cast, then the Masters is shaping up as one of the best in recent memory with all of the game's leading players having produced superb form over the past three months.
World number three Rory McIlroy is the only player ranked in the top six who has not claimed at least one tournament win so far this year, though he came close with a tie for third at the WGC-Cadillac Championship in Miami last month.
Second-ranked American Jordan Spieth, the reigning Masters champion, triumphed at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in January while red-hot Australians Jason Day and Adam Scott have each landed two PGA Tour titles over the past five weeks.
World number four Bubba Watson, a double winner at Augusta National, clinched the Northern Trust Open in February and his good friend, fifth-ranked fellow American Rickie Fowler, won the European Tour's Abu Dhabi Championship in January.
"Everyone is running in good form," Northern Irishman McIlroy said while preparing for the April 7-10 Masters, the first of the year's four major championships. "And they're all good champions, a few of them are Masters champions.
"You want your game rounding into form and playing to the best of your abilities this time of year. I feel like I'm close.
"I'm probably not quite where they are, and I haven't had the confidence of getting a win this year, but I feel like it's close."
Aged just 26, McIlroy has already claimed four major titles and next week he will be bidding for his first Green Jacket at the picturesque 'Cathedral of Pines' in Georgia, to complete a career grand slam of golf's four blue riband events.
And he likes his progression at the Masters where he tied for eighth in 2014 before finishing a career-best fourth last year.
"I'm very positive and optimistic going back to Augusta because the last few years I've improved my performance there," said McIlroy.
"Last year, I played the golf course pretty much the way I wanted to. Had a good weekend. Played the par-fives very well ... it worked out pretty well."
World number one Day is the game's hottest player, having won six times in his last 13 starts, and the long-hitting Australian will be difficult to beat at Augusta National where he tied for second in 2011 and placed third in 2013.
"It's been good momentum for me, confidence-wise, over the last two weeks," Day said after following his victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational with further success at the elite WGC-Dell Match Play in Texas on Sunday.
"But I can't get comfortable with how I'm playing right now, I can't get lazy, because I've got to understand that what I'm doing is working.
"So I've got to keep working on the things that have caused me to win over the last two weeks, keep doing that and then stay focused and hopefully put on the Green Jacket."
Short game wizardry and the ability to minimize three-putts are musts for any would-be Masters champion at an iconic venue renowned for its lightning-fast, severely contoured greens.
A comfort factor at Augusta National is another significant factor so expect defending champion Spieth, 2013 winner Scott and left-hander Watson, who wound up with the coveted Green Jacket in 2012 and 2014, to flourish next week.
"No disrespect to any other event, but I absolutely love that golf course," Spieth, 22, said of Augusta National where he triumphed by four shots last year after matching Tiger Woods' tournament record low of 18-under 270 for 72 holes.
"It is my favorite golf course in the world, it's just an easy week. The roars, the echoes, the memories, the history from watching it growing up, being on the same golf course.
"I expect to play well on a course I feel very comfortable on," said Spieth, whose form has been inconsistent since his victory at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in January.
American Watson, who is renowned for his prodigious length off the tee and brilliant shot-making, also loves the picture-postcard layout at Augusta National.
"It's a special place, it's the perfect golf course," said Watson. "It gives me goosebumps every time I come down Magnolia Lane (to reach the clubhouse). It just gets you excited, makes us feel like a kid again. You become energized."
Other likely contenders include long-hitting American Dustin Johnson, his compatriot Phil Mickelson who will be seeking a fourth Masters victory, 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose of England and rising Japanese talent Hideki Matsuyama.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)