AUGUSTA, Ga. - At the Masters this week, Rory McIlroy has the opportunity to do something positively historic, something very few have done.
He also has a chance to win the career Grand Slam and claim his third consecutive major championship.
The real distinction in modern golf, of course, is the other achievement within his range this week: He could steal the stage from Tiger Woods.
That will be no easy task, as the breezy Par 3 Contest proved Wednesday. Even though McIlroy showed up with a major celebrity caddie, singer Niall Horan of the wildly popular group One Direction, Woods was the center of attention. Woods showed up, all smiles, with children Sam and Charlie as caddies and girlfriend Lindsey Vonn as one of the few non-competitors not wearing a white caddie outfit (she wore a flowing, light green chiffon dress).
And when Woods tees off at 1:48 p.m. Thursday with a reportedly repaired short game and apparently reshaped personality, all eyes will be on him, including McIlroy's. "Just like everyone else, I'll be looking for his score and seeing what he's doing,'' the 25-year-old from Northern Ireland said.
"I think everyone is just curious to see how he comes back. I don't think you should ever underestimate him. He's done things on the golf course that are pretty special. But you know, just as a golf fan in general, I'm sort of interested to see how he does when he comes back,'' McIlroy said.
Wednesday, playing the Par 3 Contest for the first time since 2004, Woods continued the upbeat approach with which he showed up on Monday, dancing to hip-hop music in his ear buds. Referring to the fact that no Par 3 Contest champion ever secured the green jacket five days later, Woods cheerfully told ESPN his strategy: "Have fun, enjoy it and don't win.''
It all turns serious Thursday, with McIlroy on a major run. Woods, having completed his career Grand Slam by winning the 2000 British Open at St. Andrews, said, "I couldn't ask for a better place to do it at, other than the home of golf. And for Rory, you couldn't ask for the other better place to do it, which is here at Augusta. But I'm sure he'll have many green jackets in his closet before it's all said and done.''
Then again, the current No. 1 player in the world has yet to finish better than a tie for eighth at Augusta. His signature moment here came in 2011, when he led at the turn on Sunday and spectacularly crumbled, finishing tied for 15th. "I had to learn to be a little bit more aggressive instead of looking at a pin and sort of thinking of the places not to miss it. I felt the first couple years, I was thinking more about where not to hit it instead of where to hit it,'' he said.
Aside from the momentum from having won the final two majors of 2014, McIlroy seems to have an advantage this week of being free of the most intense scrutiny, because Woods is here. "It is such a big story, Tiger coming back at the Masters after a bit of a lengthy period where he has not been around,'' he said. "But still I'm just here to play golf and you [reporters] can write the stories, and I won't read them and we'll move on.''
All of golf is moving on, under the shadow of someone whose record is greater even than that of Woods. The Par 3 Contest offered a reminder of whose standard Woods, McIlroy and everyone else is chasing: Six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus, 75, made a hole-in-one.
His 8-iron from 123 yards on No. 4 was the first ace he ever scored at Augusta. Jordan Spieth, 21, one of golf's rising stars, raised his putter from a nearby hole in tribute to the sport's real No. 1.