Masters

Excitement ahead of 2018 Masters

2018-03-30 20:03
Tiger Woods (Getty)

Augusta - Tiger Woods, Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Phil Mickelson lead a host of in-form golf stars creating high expectations for an epic Masters.

And those aren't even most of the top-ranked players stirring a special anticipation in the Georgia pine trees beneath which the year's first major championship opens next Thursday at Augusta National.

Top-ranked Dustin Johnson, world number three Jon Rahm, fourth-ranked Jordan Spieth and fifth-ranked Justin Rose will be driving up Magnolia Lane as well.

And don't forget defending champion Sergio Garcia, who has become a husband and father since winning his first major on his 74th attempt, taking the green jacket on what would have been the 60th birthday of his late idol, two-time Masters winner Seve Ballesteros.

"It has been unbelievable, everything that has been going on," Garcia said. "I've been fortunate to have an amazing career, an amazing life and now it's getting even better."

Topping the emotional drama of the Spaniard's playoff win over Rose would be difficult, but a magical 82nd Masters line-up of rising stars near their peak and old favourites in strong form has built excitement seldom seen even on golf's grandest stage.

Woods sets the pace. The 14-time major champion has become a Masters oddsmakers favourite based on sharing second at the Valspar Championship and fifth at Bay Hill in his Augusta National tune-ups.

But former world number one Woods, ranked 104th, has missed three of the past four Masters with back injuries. It has taken four back surgeries but Woods is driving the ball long once again and putting and chipping well enough to challenge.

"I feel like I'm physically able to do it again and it's going to be a lot of fun," Woods said.

"I'm looking forward to it. I miss playing there. Really looking forward to getting up there, doing a bit of work and getting a feel for the course and basically that style of golf again."

Watson, the 2012 and 2014 Masters champion, won last week's WGC Match-Play and in February at Riviera to serve notice he could be in the hunt.

"Obviously I want a green jacket. I never felt a coat feel so good," Watson said. "I don't know if I can get lucky three times."

Four-time major winner McIlroy won the Arnold Palmer Invitational with a Sunday back-nine charge and makes his fourth try at completing the Career Grand Slam by winning the Masters.

"I'm very happy to have my game in this shape going into the first major of the year," McIlroy said. "The last three years went OK. I've played well. Not well enough. Hopefully I put the last piece of the puzzle in there this year and get it done."

Five-time major winner Mickelson ended a 96-event win drought of nearly five years at the WGC Mexico Championship, beating Thomas in a playoff. The left-hander and three-time Masters champion captured his 43rd career US PGA title at age 47.

"To finally break through and to have this validation means a lot to me," Mickelson said.

Thomas, who won last year's PGA Championship, took his eighth US PGA title at the Honda Classic six weeks before the Masters, but missed a chance to reach Augusta as world number one by losing in the WGC Match-Play semi-finals to Watson.

"In the end it might be a good thing going to Augusta without that," Thomas said. "I get to go do what I was going to do and let DJ have all that pressure."

Johnson was a heavy Masters favourite last year before falling down a staircase at a rented house on the eve of the event and withdrawing. He won the season-opening Tournament of Champions in Hawaii and could threaten again at Augusta.

Rose, the 2015 and 2017 Masters runner-up, last won at the WGC event in Shanghai in October but was third at Bay Hill and shared fifth at Valspar.

"Game's in a nice spot," Rose said.

Spain's Rahm won in the California desert in January and 2011 Masters runner-up Jason Day of Australia won a week later at Torrey Pines. Either could challenge, as could Spieth, the 2015 US Open and Masters winner and reigning British Open champion.

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