Commenting on this year’s Masters tournament, legendary golf broadcaster Jim Nantz remarked that, “I’ve been doing this 33 years, it’s always highly anticipated, but this might be the most anticipated Masters any of us has seen in our lifetime.” He’s absolutely right and there’s no prizes for guessing why.
2018 has seen the remarkable and wholly unexpected comeback of Tiger Woods. At the age of 42, having endured four years of injury setbacks, the four-time Masters champion is back and playing some of the best golf on tour at the moment. Though his first couple of outings of the year were nothing special, he has been in contention in each of the last three. A 12th-place finish at the Honda Classic saw him record the fastest swing speed by any player on tour all year, dispelling any concerns that his previously fragile lower back would be an issue. At the Valspar Championship he was again right in the mix coming down the stretch, draining a 40-foot putt on the 71st hole to give himself a chance of winning going down the last.
His most recent appearance at the Arnold Palmer Invitational was the most dramatic of them all, with big names such as McIlroy and Stenson in contention. On the back nine Woods made a spectacular charge and it looked for a moment as though he might win, only to see his tee shot on the 16th go out of bounds. Though the eventual winner was McIlroy, that performance and the two before it shows that Woods is capable of winning again. He looks razor sharp around the greens and his long game seems to be fairly robust as well. The only question will be whether his mental game is still there after so many years of absence from major contention. In any case, he will tee up at Augusta believing he can win and will no doubt be the primary focus for spectators regardless of how he performs. Last year at Augusta, Woods was barely able to sit in his chair at the Champions dinner; 12 months on and he is a genuine contender. A victory to secure his 15th major would be one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time.
Despite how it may seem, however, there will be other players competing in this year’s tournament and many of the game’s elite are playing their way into form. Rory McIlroy will once again be competing to become only the sixth person ever to secure the career grand slam by winning all four majors. Yet despite winning the US Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship on two occasions, McIlroy has not won a major for almost four years now. He went the whole of the 2017 season without a victory and looked somewhat distracted from his game. At the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month though, he produced an absolutely scintillating display on the back nine on Sunday to come from behind and win. There he showed all the determination and raw talent that has been missing. Should he bring that to Augusta this week, he will be very hard to beat.
Bubba Watson finds himself in a similar situation. Winless in 2017 and tumbling down the world rankings, this year has been a totally different story as he has already won twice; first holding off an array of challengers to grind out victory at the Genesis Open in February, before annihilating Kevin Kisner 7&6 in the final of the WGC Match Play last month. Augusta is a course that favours certain styles of play and where success is often repeated. As a two-time winner of the event already, it seems highly likely that Watson will be somewhere near the top of the leaderboard by Sunday evening.
No doubt there will be a strong showing from the usual suspects on the PGA Tour. Jordan Spieth is another whose Masters victory demonstrates that the course is perfectly suited to his game. Though his form this year has been below average, having recorded just three top-10s, a third-place finish last week will give him encouragement. Close friend Justin Thomas will also be looking to make a strong showing at this year’s tournament. The 24-year-old will be feeling confident of replicating the form that has seen him emerge as one of the stars of the PGA Tour, having already won twice this season.
In terms of the European contenders, the headline act is the late announcement of Ian Poulter. It looked for all the world as if the 42-year-old Englishman had forgone any chance of qualifying for this year’s tournament after his collapse in the WGC Match Play in March, but all that changed at last week’s Houston Open. After a poor first round left him in 123rd place, he rallied to leave himself tied for the lead going into the final round. After a fast start he struggled on the back nine and needed a testy 20-footer on the final hole to force a play-off. With the same putter he used at the famous 2012 Ryder Cup in hand, he drained it, beating his chest in celebration with ferocity not seen since that iconic display at Medinah. After that there was no stopping him and he eased to victory in extra holes, securing qualification for the Masters. Poulter’s game can certainly be streaky and last week marked only his first ever stroke play win in America, but with the ability to turn it on that he possesses, he can’t be ruled out as a contender at Augusta.
Another ageing Englishman who’s picked up some form is Paul Casey. Once tipped for greatness, injuries have plagued his recent career but a win in his last outing at the Valspar Championship suggests he is back in form and he will be looking to build on his recent success at Augusta, having finished no worse than sixth in each of the last three Masters tournaments. Among the other European challengers are Sergio Garcia, who will no doubt be playing under much less pressure with a green jacket now safely in the locker, and fellow Spaniard Jon Rahm, the highest ranked European in the world and surely one for whom a major title is only a matter of time.
With so many of the game’s top players coming into form at just the right time, it seems likely that whatever the outcome of this year’s Masters, by Sunday evening something momentous will have taken place.