Major Wednesday: Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson set to battle it out at The Masters

Tiger Woods (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

AS a new feature for 2018, the Sunday Post will be previewing each of golf’s Majors on the eve of the tournament.

MAJOR WEDNESDAY will look at the main stories heading into four days of action and what golf fanatics and casual observers need to look out for over 72 holes.

First up, we have The Masters.

Now I defy anyone not to enjoy this golf tournament. Turn on the TV and see the perfect white sandy bunkers, the flowers in full bloom and the greenest of green grass on the fairways and greens.

Throw in some early April sunshine in Georgia and you have the most glorious setting for sport.

As the tournament returns to the same venue each year, we have grown accustomed to the course and its nuances.

Every hole has its own story and dramatic moments from the past, especially on the back nine and around Amen Corner. With a field of only 87 this year, invitations are like gold dust, so players never take their place in the event for granted.

This year, there are so many captivating plotlines and anticipation of The Masters, which is always high, is at feverish levels.

Tiger Woods, left, gets the Green Jacket from Phil Mickelson, right, after winning the 2005 Masters (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

Tiger attempts the greatest comeback of them all

ONE man has brought an electricity back to the sport in 2018 – Tiger Woods. The 14-time major Champion has reminded everyone of what a difference he makes to golf.

When he is playing, and playing well, there is a buzz around every event. Fans flock to watch him, other players keep half an eye on him and the TV ratings go through the roof.

Woods is ready for his first appearance at The Masters since 2015, but he has people believing that he could claim his fifth Green Jacket.

There has been no win yet since he came back from major back surgery but the way he played to finish second at the Valspar Championship and in a tie for fifth at Bay Hill last month was very impressive.

He was swinging well, hitting some lovely irons and holing those clutch putts which he never missed in his pomp.

There has not been a victory yet, but perhaps he is just saving that for the sweetest one of them all – Major No.15 at Augusta.

It’s now 13 years since he won in Georgia, but he has still managed seven finishes in the top six in that time, so he knows what it takes to play well around Amen Corner.

When he missed last year’s Masters after yet another aborted comeback and a horrendous back condition, many and I include myself among them, thought we would never see Tiger Woods playing competitive golf again.

He has described himself as a ‘walking miracle’ and in golf terms, Woods is Lazarus – back from the dead – and he’s scenting the blood of the game’s young bucks as he goes in search of Major glory once more.

Rory McIlroy (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Rory continues his quest for Grand Slam greatness

FOR the fourth successive year, Rory McIlroy has arrived at Augusta with his mind focused on the Grand Slam. He already has the US Open, The Open and the US PGA on his CV, so just The Masters remains.

Only five players have won all four Majors – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods. That tells you everything about the company McIlroy is trying to join.

Every time he has visited Augusta in these last four visits, the questions have been the same. Can he do it? Can he handle the pressure of history to claim the Green Jacket?

In those three previous attempts, he has finished fourth, tenth and seventh without threatening to win. It shows he can play well on the course, but now the challenge is to go the next step.

But the increased confidence this time comes from events at the Arnold Palmer Invitational just over a fortnight ago.

The Northern Irishman produced a Rory McIlroy special of 64 in the final round where everything clicked and no one on an illustrious leaderboard could live with him. It was the statement that after a difficult 18 months out of the winners’ circle, McIlroy was back.

Now he brings that confidence to Augusta. He is not searching for his game as well as chasing the Green Jacket.

Masters winners have usually won somewhere in the weeks leading up to the season’s first Major and Rory’s rigorous schedule in the early months of 2018 could have him peaking at just the right time.

Phil Mickelson (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

Lefties’ revival act

IN the history of Major Championships, left-handed golfers have won the US Open, The Open and the US PGA a combined three times.

At The Masters, they have won six. Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson account for five of those and they arrive at Augusta with a renewed spring in their step.

Mickelson recently ended a long wait for a victory that stretched back to his 2013 Open triumph at Muirfield.

He saw off World No.2 Justin Thomas in a play-off to claim the WGC event in Mexico and once again remind everyone of his enduring ability.

At 47, he would become the oldest ever winner at Augusta, overtaking Jack Nicklaus and that unforgettable win in 1986 at the age of 46. But Mickelson’s triumph in Mexico came on the back of his best run of form for years.

After a turbulent year 12 months ago in which he finally parted company with long-time caddie Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay after 25 years together, rumours of his golfing demise have been dismissed out of hand. And with three Green Jackets to his name already, Augusta holds no fears for ‘Lefty’.

Bubba Watson is not everyone’s cup of tea, but he is a fine player.

Although 2017 was a year to forget for the maverick left-hander. Illness, which included a substantial weight loss, family issues and a change of ball were enough to produce a miserable season.

Even Bubba doubted if he would get back to the top. At the start of the Genesis Open in February, he was 117th in the world rankings.

Now after victory that week in Los Angeles and again at the WGC Match Play last week, Bubba is back inside the top 20 and is a Major contender once again, having already collected Green Jackets in 2012 and 2014.

Justin Rose (David Cannon/Getty Images)

Brit watch:

Ian Poulter claimed the last spot with victory in Houston on Sunday night and will be keen to carry that momentum with him.

He joined Paul Casey as a fortysomething English winner on the PGA Tour in 2018 after Casey’s triumph at the Valspar last month. Justin Rose has not won yet in 2018, but he has been preparing rigorously to go one better than his runners-up spot last year at Augusta.

Of the younger brigade, Tyrrell Hatton and Tommy Fleetwood make their second Masters appearance and Fleetwood will be in the company of Tiger Woods for the opening two days.

Danny Willett will try to recapture the glories of two years ago when he benefited from Jordan Spieth’s collapse, alongside Masters winners of vintage in Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam. While there are also appearances for Ross Fisher, Matthew Fitzpatrick and last year’s Amateur Champion Harry Ellis, who gets to mix it with the biggest names in golf.

Sergio Garcia (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

 

The key hole:

13th; par 5; 510 yards: ANY of the holes on Augusta’s back nine could have got the nomination, but there is something special about this par five, called Azalea. Most players will stand on the tee and think birdie, but with a huge dog leg to the left and Rae’s Creek all the way down the left and then in front of the green, danger is lurking. But miss the water and there is still a treacherously sloping green and a perilous bunker behind it.

 

In the final round 12 months ago, Sergio Garcia looked toast when he found the trees off the tee and was already two shots behind Justin Rose. Sergio took a penalty drop and made the best par of his career. Rose found the green in two but three-putted to halve the hole. Suddenly Sergio had a second wind which eventually saw him claim that magical first Major. The impact of the 13th was so great for the Spaniard that he even named his first child, daughter Azalea, after this hole!

 

Round one selected tee-times:

12.45: Jack Nicklaus (USA), Gary Player (SA) – Honorary starters

15.42: Tiger Woods (USA), Marc Leishman (Aus), Tommy Fleetwood (Eng)

15.53: Sergio Garcia (Spa), Justin Thomas (USA), Doc Redman (USA, amateur)

16.04: Bubba Watson (USA), Henrik Stenson (Swe), Jason Day (Aus)

18.27: Phil Mickelson (USA), Rickie Fowler (USA), Matt Kuchar (USA)

18.38: Adam Scott (Aus), Rory McIlroy (NI), Jon Rahm (Spa)

18.49: Jordan Spieth (USA), Alex Noren (Swe), Louis Oosthuizen (SA)

19.00: Justin Rose (Eng), Dustin Johnson (USA), Rafa Cabrera-Bello (Spa)

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