Strong competition for this year’s green jacket

Rory McIlroy. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

By Phil Rice

How do we recognise that spring is in the air? Early morning birdsong, or perhaps the clocks going forward and daylight stretching beyond 7pm? In the case of sports fans, the dawn of the new season is marked by the prospect of late night viewing of golf’s most captivating Major Tournament.

The US Masters holds a special place in the heart of every golf fan and provides hours of compulsive viewing, as a new golfing year really gets underway. The history of the tournament is littered with folklore of triumphs and disasters and it seems every year provides further memorable events.

This year’s event starts at the immaculately manicured Augusta course on Thursday and it promises to be one of the most closely contested Masters for many years.

The re-emergence of none other than the legendary Tiger Woods as a competitive force has taken the entire golfing world by something of a surprise. Our most recent memories of the great man are of an out-of-sorts golfer trying to compete at tournaments while clearly struggling physically.

Most felt that we had seen the last of Tiger as a serious contender at Major events. But after an eight-year period, which included very public investigations into the golf star’s private life and multiple surgical visits to specialists, the irrepressible Tiger is very much back in the competitive arena.

Tiger Woods. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

Gone are the painful back spasms that marked his previous attempts to return to competitive golf, and his swing is looking fluent and robust. Since the turn of 2018 he has competed in five PGA Tournaments on an increasingly competitive basis.

His most recent tournament finishes include a fifth place at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and second at the Valspar Championship, giving rise to the belief that perhaps his fifteenth Major victory may be more achievable than many had predicted.

There is little doubt that should Tiger get into contention at a Major he won’t have forgotten how to get over the finishing line. He has become increasingly confident during his recent comeback events and the golfing public have clearly shown their appreciation of his revival in fortunes.

However, during Tiger’s sabbatical a number of outstanding young talents have emerged. Jordan Spieth has already worn the green jacket at Augusta, while his close friend 24-year-old Justin Thomas has emerged as one of the brightest stars on the PGA Tour with several recent victories.

Rory McIlroy recovered from a barren spell by winning the recent Arnold Palmer Invitational with a final round 64, showing some of his best form since winning his last major at the 2014 PGA Championship.

 

The Northern Irishman needs the US Masters to complete a full house of Major victories and become only the sixth golfer in history to achieve that feat.

Since McIlroy imploded during the final nine holes of the 2011 Masters, he has made no secret of the fact that he believes his game is well suited to the Augusta course and he is clearly desperate to wipe that aberration from his memory.

He returned to a longer handled putter at the Arnold Palmer event two weeks ago, with remarkable results and he is hopeful that he can carry that form into this week’s Masters.

Two previous Masters winners, both left-handers, have been showing excellent form recently, Phil Mickleson and Bubba Watson.

Their games are well suited to the demands of the Augusta course. Watson won last week’s WGC Matchplay Championship to add to his earlier victory this year at the Genesis Open.

There would be no more popular winner than Mickleson should he prevail. After a period in the wilderness, the popular Californian returned to the winner’s circle last month at the WGC Mexico Championship.

 

If he were to win he would be the oldest winner of the event at 47 – one year older than Jack Nicklaus when he won his final Major at Augusta in 1986.

Other potential winners include world number one Dustin Johnson, who has struggled lately but has the game to win the event with his exceptional length. Jon Rahm the Spanish superstar is certainly a Major winner in-waiting.

Jason Day seldom fails to be in contention at Augusta and he has been showing good form recently. Justin Rose lost in a play-off to Sergio Garcia last year and he will be keen to get revenge.

It is difficult to remember a US Masters with so many outstanding golfers potentially in contention. With such popular icons of the game as Tiger, Rory and Phil all in good form, it promises to be a great weekend for the armchair supporters.


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