By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - The 80th Masters, which starts on Thursday, shapes up as one of the best in recent memory with world number one Jason Day heading a list of high-profile players in superb form over the past three months.
Day is widely regarded as the pre-tournament favorite, 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.
However, he will have to contend with several other top players who have tasted success in recent weeks and Day has been quick to play down any suggestion that he is the favorite.
"To be honest, I don't think I'm the favorite this week," said Day. "There's a lot of people out there that can play well this week and win. Jordan (Spieth) and Rory (McIlroy) and Henrik (Stenson) ... even Phil (Mickelson) is a favorite here.
"There's not just one heavy favorite this week, which is fantastic. I think it's good for the game of golf and I think it's good for this tournament as well. I'm excited about the week."
Day's fellow Australian Adam Scott has already triumphed twice on the 2015-16 PGA Tour while American world number two Spieth, the reigning Masters champion, won the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in January.
Fourth-ranked 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.
World number three 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.
"My game feels good," said McIlroy. "It's all about going out there over the next four days and executing the shots the way I need to and being mentally strong.
"I'm probably a little bit more subdued going in this time because I haven't had a win this year, but I feel like my game is right there."
CAREER GRAND SLAM
Aged just 26, McIlroy has already claimed four major titles and this week he will be bidding for his first Green Jacket at the picturesque 'Cathedral of Pines', to complete a career grand slam of golf's four blue riband events.
That would put him in elite company, alongside golfing greats Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods.
"It's a motivation, to be able to put your name alongside those five guys," said McIlroy. "I haven't been in a situation where I've felt the pressure of it, really, because I didn't have a real chance to win the golf tournament last year."
Short game wizardry and the ability to minimize three-putts are musts for any would-be Masters champion at Augusta National, which is renowned for its lightning-fast, severely contoured greens.
Adding to the challenge for the 89-strong field this week is the fact that strong winds have been forecast for the first three rounds.
A comfort factor at the venue is another significant factor so expect defending champion Spieth to flourish this week, despite having produced inconsistent form since his PGA Tour victory in January.
"No disrespect to any other event, but I absolutely love this golf course," Spieth, 22, said of Augusta National where he triumphed by four shots last year after matching Woods' tournament record low of 18-under 270 for 72 holes.
"It is my favorite golf course in the world. I've had a fantastic couple of days thus far preparing and my game feels great. Going to try and just use last year as momentum.
"Sure, I'm putting pressure on myself to contend this year, just like last year, and I feel like I'm in form, as well. It's also going to be a lot of fun walking these fairways, reliving those memories with the crowds and the roars, the echoes."
Other likely contenders include long-hitting American Dustin Johnson, his compatriot 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 Larry Fine)