By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Twice champion Bernhard Langer believes that up to 40 players are genuine contenders for this week's Masters, with another 30 quite capable of winning the year's opening major championship.
An elite field of 89 has assembled at Augusta National for the tournament's 80th edition, which started on Thursday, and Germany's Langer loves the fact that virtually all of the world's top 10 have displayed excellent form in recent months.
"Most of the top 10 guys in the world rankings have won lately, or at least have shown some very good form," Langer, 58, told Reuters while sitting in a plush armchair inside the iconic clubhouse at Augusta National.
"You want the best players playing great coming in here and we've got that. The guys in form are Jason Day and Adam Scott. Bubba Watson is also very good around here and there's (defending champion) Jordan Spieth and (Henrik) Stenson.
"You would have to name 30 or 40 guys who are favorites this week, and then there's another 30 who could win the tournament as well."
Former world number one Langer, who this week will be competing in his 33rd Masters, has set himself the target of making the cut at Augusta National for a third time in the last four years and vying for the title.
"It's a tough challenge for me because the golf course is very long but my expectations are always high," said Langer, referring to the heavily contoured layout that measures 7,435 yards off the back tees.
"I would like to be in contention, I would like to be on the leaderboard," added the German, who tied for eighth at the Masters just two years ago. "But length is very important on this golf course nowadays."
STUNNED BY SLICK GREENS
Langer, who won the coveted Green Jacket in 1985 and 1993, vividly recalls how stunned he was when he first saw the lightning-fast, severely sloping greens at Augusta National.
"I'd never seen greens like this before," said Langer, who played his first Masters in 1982 and is now a golf brand ambassador for Mercedes-Benz, a global partner of the Masters.
"They were more undulating, they were faster, they were firmer. They were just quite different from what we used to play on the tour."
Asked to explain the biggest challenge at Augusta for benefit of golf fans who had never visited the course, Langer replied: "First of all, there are a lot of side-hill, downhill and uphill lies which you don't really see on television.
"Secondly, the greens are large but it's not good just being on the green, you need to be in small pockets on the green where the pin is and then within that small pocket.
"You want to have an uphill putt, and not a downhill or side-hill putt.
"So the large green becomes a very, very small target, and hitting that small target with often longer irons makes it that much harder. And if you don't hit it, then you have extremely difficult putts or chips or bunker shots."
(Editing by Steve Keating)