Masters hype heightens

First golf Major of the year is wide open with Woods' return and the form of other A-listers

AUGUSTA (Georgia) • The unmistakable presence of Tiger Woods looms large over the Masters but a bunch of talented, hungry and in-form players ensure that the year's first Major championship will be much more than a one-man show.

Woods will attract the most attention, at least for the first two rounds, but Justin Thomas, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy are also touted as contenders.

Woods' return, coupled with the sheer number of top players playing well concurrently, have led to almost unprecedented levels of excitement.

"I've never seen so many stars of the sport having their A-games going into Augusta," American sportscaster Jim Nantz, 58, said.

"This is the probably the most anticipated Masters any of us has seen in our lifetime."

Former Masters champions Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson are playing their best golf in years and have recently returned to the winner's circle.

Watson waited two years for another PGA title, then got two in as many months - winning February's Genesis Open and last month's WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. Mickelson ended the longest title drought of his professional career - five years - at last month's WGC-Mexico Championship.

  • Since the Masters began in 1934, no player has shot four rounds in the 60s.

A win this week will see Mickelson surpassing Jack Nicklaus as the oldest golfer to win the Masters.

Nicklaus was 46 when he won in 1986. Mickelson will be 47 when he makes the drive down Magnolia Lane. And if there is one historic venue that has seen its fair share of blockbuster finales, it is Augusta National.

Defending champion Sergio Garcia donned the Green Jacket on what would have been fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros' 60th birthday. The year before? Unfancied Danny Willett, set to miss the event because his son was due to be born on Masters Sunday, celebrated the first fortnight of fatherhood in style.

The birth of a new career Grand Slam champion is another potential fairy-tale ending on Sunday.

McIlroy will make his fourth attempt at completing his Major collection, having had three top-10 finishes in the last three years.

For all the contenders' credentials, however, they will all be overshadowed by Woods as the 14-time Major champion competes at Augusta for the first time since 2015.

The 42-year-old has not won at Augusta since 2005 but has displayed unexpected good form during his comeback from spinal fusion surgery.

Two-time winner Bernhard Langer noted that the former world No. 1's return was just one of the week's great storylines.

"You've got great champions at all ages and they all seem to have a possible chance," the 60-year-old said.


Masters 2018: Formidable five



• World ranking: No. 103

• Best result: Champion (1997, 2001, 2002, 2005)

• Why he can win: Because he is Tiger Woods. And he has shown consistency since his comeback - 11 of his last 12 competitive rounds have been par or better.

• Why he might not: His driving has been wayward - he ranks 153rd in strokes gained off the tee.



• World ranking: No. 7

• Best result: 4th (2015)

• Why he can win: His putting can be a weakness. But he has found some form with the flat stick - his 100 putts at the Arnold Palmer Invitational were the fewest in four rounds in his PGA Tour career. 

• Why he might not: He has yet to overcome his Masters mental hurdle after being emotionally scarred in 2011, when he blew a four-shot lead on the last day. 



• World ranking: No. 19

• Best result: Champion (2012, 2014)

• Why he can win: His confidence is back. After ending a two-year title drought, he won twice in as many months. He is also back on the course where he seems most comfortable.

• Why he might not: He has struggled when it matters most. Apart from two wins at Augusta, he has just two top-10 results in 38 other Major appearances, missing the cut 15 times.  



• World ranking: No. 18

• Best result: Champion (2004, 2006, 2010)

• Why he can win: Like fellow leftie Watson, he is playing with conviction again and his fade shots off the tee should set him up nicely at Augusta's many left-to-right shaped holes.

• Why he might not: A hit-and-miss recently, he has failed to make the weekend twice in the last four editions after missing just one cut in the previous 19.  



• World ranking: No. 5

• Best result: 2nd (2015, 2017)

• Why he can win: His track record suggests he will be a Masters champion one day - five top 10s in the last decade, no one has more birdies and eagles than him since 2012; the best score to par since 2011.

• Why he might not: He has 13 top 10s in 15 starts worldwide, but he knows he is not the only one in form . He has "low expectation" because he cannot "control so many variables out there".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2018, with the headline 'Masters hype heightens'. Print Edition | Subscribe