On Thursday at Augusta National in Georgia, 87 players will begin their quests to claim the most prestigious prize in professional golf – the US Masters title and with it the famed green jacket.
The build-up has ensured the 2018 tournament promises to be one of the most captivating Masters in recent years. Ahead of the first tee shot, Jon Turner looks at the biggest talking points dominating the lead-up to the 82nd Masters.
Tiger’s roaring return
There are plenty of storylines that have made the build-up to the 2018 Masters interesting, but only one that has transformed the tournament into a must-not-miss event.
Anyone who may have forgotten the unrivalled star quality of Tiger Woods during his injury-riddled absence were given a stark reminder on Monday when the 14-time major winner was cheered on by thousands of spectators during a practice round at Augusta National.
Not only is the greatest golfer of a generation back at the Masters for the first time in three years, but he has a genuine chance of success. Previous comeback attempts ultimately ended in disappointment, pain and resignation often etched across his face as missed cuts and tournament withdrawals due to persistent back injuries inevitably led to suggestions that Woods’s era-defining career was coming to a tragic conclusion.
That is all a far cry from the Woods of 2018. The broad smile is back, his body seemingly pain-free, and most importantly, results are heading in the right direction. Two top five-finishes in his most recent outings, including a tied-second at the Valspar Championship, suggests Woods’s game is where it needs to be to compete at the top of the leaderboard. Even at the age of 42, Woods remains the biggest draw in golf, and should the American be slipping on a fifth green jacket come Sunday, the golf world is sure to have a meltdown.
McIlroy’s grand slam search
If Woods defined one era, Rory McIlroy was the player earmarked to lead the subsequent generation. The Northern Irishman may not have dominated the sport quite like Woods, but no one can debate his immense talent.
While sometimes prone to inconsistency, a dialled-in McIlroy is the best golfer in the world and this week he will have his latest opportunity to join Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen, Gary Player, and Ben Hogan in a select club of players to win the Grand Slam of all four majors.
McIlroy has fared well at Augusta National, claiming top-10 finishes in each of the past four years. However, until victory is secured, many will point to the collapse of 2011 – when McIlroy led the field to finish 15th in the space of six holes – as a demon yet to be fully exorcised.
Form certainly favours McIlroy, who enters the first major of the season weeks after winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational and claiming tied-third and runner-up finishes at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, presented by EGA and the Omega Dubai Desert Classic respectively.
McIlroy is hardly being ignored – he is, after all, considered among the tournament favourites – but with so much attention focused on Woods, 2018 could be his best chance to keep a comparatively lower profile in his pursuit of the grand slam.
Too close to call
Woods and McIlroy are far from the only high-profile players who enter the Masters in good form. In fact, the list of leading contenders is pretty sizeable. Four of the top five players in the world - Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, and Justin Rose - have all won titles this year.
Defending champion Sergio Garcia has posted three top-10s this season, while three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson and former world No 1 Jason Day have also both claimed titles in recent weeks.
That’s not forgetting two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson, the form player heading into the tournament after his two victories in his past four starts. Or indeed Paul Casey, the Englishman who has three successive top-six Masters finishes and won the Vaspar Championship last month.
Essentially, with so many top-calibre players in title-winning form this year, the 2018 Masters is almost too close to call and is sure to be a fiercely-competitive battle.
Dubai omen to strike again?
In 2016, Danny Willett won the Masters in improbable circumstances, pouncing on Jordan Spieth’s back nine meltdown on the Sunday to lift the title. The Englishman’s maiden major victory came months after he won the Omega Dubai Desert Classic for the first time. Twelve months later, in 2017, Sergio Garcia led from start to finish to win his first Dubai title. Fast forward a few weeks and the Spaniard was celebrating his first major at the 74th attempt at Augusta National.
To make it a hat-trick of Dubai-Masters double winners, the responsibility falls on Li Haotong, who edged McIlroy by one shot to emerge victorious at Emirates Golf Club in February. Haotong, ranked No 42 in the world, is making his Masters debut so continuing the recent trend will be a tall order, but if China’s highest ranked player does achieve the unlikely, perhaps Dubai will be included in even more players' future schedules.