As the first major of the year, The Masters is always extremely popular, but recent bias aside, 2018 feels extra special, and extra likely to be one of the most gripping editions ever.
Here are some of the storylines to follow this week at Augusta National:
1. TIGER RETURNS TO HALLOWED GROUNDS
The Masters appears to be as wide-open as it has been in recent memory, and this field is replete with compelling storylines, but reason No. 1 – why so many fans will be tuning in this week – is to see the long-awaited return of four-time Masters Champion Tiger Woods.
After a two-year hiatus due to back injuries, Woods will be teeing up again this week. Not only that, but he looks like he could have a pretty darn good chance of being competitive.
Expectations were low when Tiger first returned to competitive golf at the Farmers Insurance Open in January, making his T23 seem especially impressive. His tee game was frighteningly poor, but the short game was surprisingly sharp, and it gave excellent promise that 79-win Tiger could be back soon.
A missed cut at the Genesis Open was forgivable, given the layoff, but something big happened at The Honda Classic: Tiger looked really, really good. He looked like a lock for a top 10 finish until a late hiccup left him a couple positions out at T12. He followed that up with a T2 at the Valspar Championship, finishing a single stroke behind Paul Casey, and then posted a a T5 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. In that time, his short game has stayed remarkably on point, and his driving accuracy is becoming less of a liability by the week.
What kind of expectations are fair for Tiger at The Masters?
His past success as the champion (1997, 2001, 2002, and 2005) has him among the betting favorites this week. He does not quite look like prime Tiger, at least not yet, but his 2018 has been more than a little impressive, and it seems like career victory No. 80 might not be far away.
Could that victory also be major championship No. 15? It is the No. 1 thing fans will be clamoring for this week.
2. SERGIO DEFENDS
In his first 73 major championship starts, Sergio Garcia’s topline results were: 0 wins, 4 runner-ups, 12 top 5s, 22 top 10s.
A three-stroke lead after five holes on Sunday was lost by the 10th, but an eagle on 15 put Garcia back in the driver’s seat, and after one extra playoff hole, Sergio was finally a major winner.
Finally, we got to see the fruits of all the promise he showed as a precocious 19-year-old at the 1999 PGA Championship.
Now, Sergio can play these majors with that monkey off his back, and still two years short of his 40s, it is unlikely that he is anywhere near done. He just became a father for the first time last month – a daughter aptly named Azalea – and so for Sergio, it is all just beginning.
Despite all the personal distractions that have come from his recent success, Garcia is still coming into his Masters defense in hot form. He won a European Tour event in October, an Asian Tour event in January, and in his last three PGA Tour starts, he has three top-10 finishes (T7, 4, T9).
That most recent top 10 was at the WGC-Match Play, where he swept a difficult group before Kyle Stanley knocked him out in the round of 16. Sergio certainly isn’t scrambling to find his form.
3. RORY LOOKING FOR THE CAREER GRAND SLAM
Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods. Those are the only five golfers in PGA Tour history to have won the coveted career grand slam. But with a win this week, Rory McIlroy would become the sixth name on that list.
He is one of three players who will have that chance this season, with Phil Mickelson needing just the U.S. Open, and Jordan Spieth needing the PGA’s Wanamaker Trophy. Rory gets first shot.
He may not have a green jacket, at least not yet, but McIlroy has had some close calls in this event. Everyone remembers how a then 21-year-old McIlroy took a four-shot lead into the final round of the 2011 Masters, only to implode on the 10th hole on Sunday with a triple bogey.
He has not come quite as close since, but he has finished in the top 10 in his four most recent Masters starts, with a best finish of solo-4th in 2015.
Last season, a final-round 69 was good for T7, although that was six strokes out of the Garcia-Rose playoff.
Rory might be the true wild card of this year’s tournament. The 2017 season was a lost one for McIlroy, as he spent most of it battling a nagging rib injury. After some time off, he looked to be in top form early on with two top-3 finishes in Dubai on the European Tour.
Unfortunately for Rory, that play did not translate when he started playing PGA Tour events again. He played poorly in his first four events back in the states: a missed cut at Pebble Beach followed by a backdoor T20, a T59, and another missed cut.
Then the back nine on Sunday at Bay Hill happened. Starting the final round in third place, Rory destroyed the closing stretch, carding birdies on 13, 14, 15, 16, and 18 in a mind-blowing putting performance that resulted in a three-stroke victory at the the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
McIlroy has played just once since then: amassing a 1-2-0 record in group play at the WGC-Match Play, dropping an opening day match to Peter Uihlein and then getting obliterated two days later by Brian Harman.
It was not the follow-up performance Rory was hoping for, but not being a stroke-play event, it is hard to gauge how relevant it should be when considering his Masters chances. As the only player in the field with top 10s in his past four Augusta starts, those chances should probably still be considered very good.
4. PHIL VYING FOR GREEN JACKET NO. 4
Phil Mickelson does not need this title for his career grand slam: he already has three green jackets, but a fourth Augusta triumph, which would tie him with Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods for second most all-time, would still be incredible for his legacy.
Despite being fewer than two months away from his 48th birthday, Mickelson is playing his best golf in years. He sits third in the current FedExCup standings, with most of that credit going to a recent tear where Phil posted four-straight top-six finishes, the last of which was a victory at the WGC-Mexico Championship where he snapped a five-year winless drought.
That Mexico triumph required a 65-66 weekend, and holding off a scorching-hot Justin Thomas in a playoff.
In two events since that incredible four-start stretch, Phil has cooled off slightly, but still maintains first-class form. He failed to advance out of group play at the WGC-Match Play, but still went 2-1-0 in a very strong group, and in Houston last week, he did not have his best stuff on Saturday, cancelling out two three-birdie runs with a triple bogey and a double, but a first-round 68 and a final-round 67 still led to a 10-under finish for the week.
On Sunday, he was bogey-free and hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation, giving him something tremendous to build on for Augusta.
5. SPIETH ROUNDING INTO FORM
Augusta has a reputation for being a course that requires considerable time and experience to conquer. Jordan Spieth did not need much time, however, very nearly becoming the first Masters debutante to win since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 when he took runner-up honors in 2014.
Spieth followed that up with a record victory the very next season, another runner-up in 2016, and then a T11 last year.
A major understatement: this course suits Spieth well.
Now, at just 24 years old, Spieth will already be making his fifth Masters start, and his prolific past again makes him one of the favorites.
Most of Spieth’s game is as strong as it always is, but for some reason, his putter has been a huge problem for him this year, and that inconsistency on the greens has led to results that have not quite reached his past standards.
Going into the Houston Open last week, Spieth had just two top 10s in eight starts, a pair of ninth-place finishes.
Now, after Houston, things are different. Spieth finished in a tie for third-place, reaching 16-under for the week. He led the field in strokes gained: tee-to-green, and while the putting stats were still down, it was based largely on one really, really bad third round. In the other three rounds, he was at least passable with the flatstick.
There is no doubting how badly Spieth, now ranked No. 4 in the world, wants that second green jacket. Houston may have waken that giant up.