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ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE AT AUGUSTA

What does it take to win at Augusta National? Immense talent. A lofty world ranking. And at least a couple fortuitous bounces over the course of four days.

Here's a look at the top contenders, as well as others who could take temporary residence near the top of the leader board somewhere along the way:

The Elite Five

Retief Goosen. Age: 35. World ranking: 5. Two-time U.S. Open winner could be primed to add a second leg of the career Grand Slam. . . . Has placed top-15 in five of six events this year and is ranked No. 1 in all-around play, No. 6 in greens in regulation and tied for sixth in putting for greens hit in regulation. . . . Wilted in final-round duel with Woods here in 2002, but who didn't back then? No worse than 13th in his last three trips to Augusta.. . . Typically unflappable.

Phil Mickelson. Age: 34. World ranking: 4. Defending champion returns without the baggage of being the "best player never to win a major" and with his game in peak form. . . . Have to wonder if Monday's long playoff at the BellSouth took a little out of him mentally and physically leading into Masters week. . . . High, fading drives were cited as the reason he broke through last year, but he'd been pounding at the door anyway, having finished third three straight times before scoring his first major win.

Tiger Woods. Age: 26. World ranking: 2. Win at the Buick in late January marked the first time in 14 months he'd won a PGA-sanctioned stroke play event. Amazing considering two years ago it was looking like he'd never lose. . . . Follow-up win at Doral in early March suggests he's finally rounding into form in the post-Butch Harmon era and is ready to make a strong bid at major No. 9 -- which will be his first since the '02 U.S. Open.

Ernie Els. Age: 35. World ranking: 3. Second at the Masters last year. Second in the British Open. Tied for fourth at U.S. Open. Tied for ninth at PGA. Think the Big Easy's feeling snake-bit? . . . Has three top-10s in a scant five U.S. events this year and hasn't finished worse than sixth in last five stops at Augusta. . . . Next major will be his fourth, and a win at the Masters would leave him a PGA shy of the career Grand Slam.

Vijay Singh: Age: 42. World ranking: 1. Vaulted atop world ratings while winning nine times last season, including second PGA Championship and third major. Scored his 25th career tour win at the Sony Open in January and has five top-5s in 10 events. Ranks second on tour in greens in regulation, which means he'll be lurking here, as he usually is.

Second Tier

Padraig Harrington: Age: 33. World ranking: 6. Ten-time worldwide winner might be the best player without a major title now that Lefty's off the schneid. . . . Scored first U.S. victory at this year's Honda Classic. . . . Fifth at Augusta in '02, 13th last year.

Adam Scott. Age: 24. World ranking: 9. Captured the next closest thing to a major in winning 2004 TPC. Already has rain-shortened Nissan Open in his pocket this year . . . First on tour in greens in regulation, a vital statistic at Augusta. Four of last five winners have led field in that category . . . Missed cut here last year after opening with an 80.

David Toms: Age: 38. World ranking: 8. Hasn't broken 70 at Augusta since 1998, when he concluded his first appearance here with a sizzling 64 to place tied for eighth. He's thinking this might be the year he makes a run, and he could be right. . . . Five top-10 finishes in eight starts this year while displaying the whole package: sixth in putting average, eighth in GIR, ninth in total driving.

Sergio Garcia: Age: 25. World ranking: 7. Exorcised some Augusta demons by tying for fourth last year with a closing 66, the best final round of the tournament. Can get it done here if he avoids the catastrophic round (78s in '00 and '03). . . . Had a double-eagle on the par-5 second hole during Tuesday's practice round. . . . Ranks fourth in greens in regulation, further proof that the swing changes endured during a winless '03 have taken solid hold.

Mike Weir. Age: 34. World ranking: 11. The 2003 Masters winner lurks under the radar after missing cut in his defense last year. But once a winner here, always a threat. . . . Accuracy is the hallmark of Weir's game (eighth in GIR, 15th in driving accuracy) but he hasn't made a move since placing second at Pebble Beach.

Maybes

Bernhard Langer. Age: 47. World ranking: 74. The age factor suggests he hasn't a chance, and he hasn't been playing particularly well. But remember that Jack Nicklaus was 46 when he scored here in 1986. . . . Seems to save his best for Augusta, where he's won twice and missed the cut just twice in 22 appearances. . . . Quietly tied for fourth here last year while the patrons were abuzz over Mickelson's first major.

Jose Maria Olazabal: Age: 39. World ranking: 97. Just like Langer, "Ollie" looms as a perennial threat regardless of how he's playing heading into the tournament. Owns two green jackets and has been top-10 seven times in 17 visits. . . . Folded down stretch at BellSouth, twice missing putts of less than 5 feet that would have won the tournament.

Ryan Moore. Age: 22. World ranking: N/A. There's no dismissing this UNLV senior after a 2004 campaign unprecedented in the annals of amateur golf. Moore won the NCAAs, U.S. Amateur, U.S. Public Links and Western. . . . Seattle native tied for 45th here in 2003 appearance earned through Public Links title. . . . Has Mickelson-like daring.

Paul Casey. Age: 27. World ranking: 34. Struggles this season might be owed to the backlash of his "stupid Americans" comment. . . . Immensely talented with a game normally suited to Augusta, where he tied for sixth last year with middle rounds of 69-68. . . . Has missed three of five cuts this year while hitting less than half of fairways. Would take a sudden reversal of form to contend again.

Stewart Cink. Age: 31. World ranking: 10. Patience makes him well-suited to rising to the top in a major. . . . Has sizzled with the putter this season while producing three top-5 finishes . . . Georgia native has just two sub-70 rounds (both 69s) in seven Masters. Have to wonder if he has in him the 67 the winner is likely to produce along the way.

Projected Top 3

1) Goosen. 2) Woods. 3) Els
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com