By DOUG FERGUSON, Associated Press
Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy passed each other on Sunday at Augusta National last year, two players from different generations who appeared headed in opposite directions.
Now, headed into Masters 2012, they're on a collision course — each taking a path over the last 12 months that would have been difficult for anyone to chart.
It all started last April 10.
Woods, with four green jackets among his 14 majors, made up a seven-shot deficit in nine holes and was poised for his first comeback win in a major. But instead of the Masters not starting until the back nine Sunday, that's where it ended for Woods. He didn't pick up another shot the rest of the day, and then a week later mentioned a "minor injury" to his left leg that turned out to be much more than that.
It would be nearly four months until Woods completed another tournament, and he fell out of the top 50 in the world.
McIlroy, meanwhile, was on his way to the greatest collapse by a 54-hole leader at the Masters in more than a half-century. The tee shot behind a cabin left of the 10th fairway. A three-putt from 7 feet on the 11th, and a four-putt from 12 feet on the 12th. The lasting image was Boy Wonder burying his head in the crook of his arm after a wayward tee shot on the 13th. He shot 80 that day.
The devastation gave way to a coronation two months later, however, when the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland shattered the U.S. Open scoring record and won by eight shots at Congressional.
McIlroy has won twice and finished no worse than third in nine of his last 12 tournaments, and his win at the Honda Classic a month ago made him the second-youngest player (behind Woods) to be No. 1 in the world, even if the top ranking lasted only two weeks.
That made him the favorite among bookies — until Woods ended a 30-month drought on the PGA Tour by winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational three weeks later.
Here they come again.
A chance for redemption for McIlroy at the Masters. A chance for Woods to resume his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record 18 majors.
"It was definitely a defining moment," McIlroy said of blowing a four-shot lead last year. "It could have been the crossroads of my career. I could have did what I did on Sunday at Augusta and let it affect me, maybe go into a slump or feel down or feel sorry for myself. I had enough good people around me not to let that happen.
"I was able to go down the right path, and do the right things, and to put everything right and win the next major."
Woods has been stuck on 14 majors since he won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in 2008 on a badly damaged left leg. His last win at the Masters was in 2005, his longest drought in any of the majors.
He has withdrawn from two tournaments since last year, the most recent at Doral because of soreness and swelling in his left Achilles tendon. One week changed everything. He made a hard course at Bay Hill look easy and won by five shots, just like he used to do.
"I've gone into Augusta with wins and without wins," Woods said. "You're looking for one week, that's all. Hopefully, everything comes together for that one week. I understand how to play Augusta National. And it's just a matter of executing the game plan."
It is easy to get wrapped up in the "Tiger and Rory" show at the Masters when it starts Thursday.
But the 76th edition could be so much more.
Off the golf course, a sticky issue returned in the week before the Masters because of something that happened in a board room, not inside the ropes. Virginia Rometty was appointed chief executive of IBM, a longtime sponsor of the Masters. The last four CEOs of Big Blue have been members at Augusta National. The club, however, has never had a female member since it opened in 1933.
So while Woods and McIlroy are getting plenty of attention, so is Martha Burk, who led an unsuccessful campaign for the club to end its all-male membership a decade ago.
On the golf course, all the right players are winning going into the first major of the year.
It started the first week of the season with Steve Stricker winning the Tournament of Champions. Phil Mickelson appears to have discovered his putting touch and shot 64 to win at Pebble Beach for his 40th career PGA Tour win. Bill Haas backed up his FedEx Cup title with a playoff win at Riviera. McIlroy went to No. 1 in the world until Luke Donald won a four-man playoff at Innisbrook and regained his No. 1 ranking.