Though Augusta National’s annual gathering rarely lacks for intrigue, the weekly parade of top-class winners this spring has brought stars into alignment like few other years. And that’s before you consider the return of a certain once-dominant big cat on the prowl again.
The wild card of wild cards, as most unpredictables aren’t in possession of four green jackets. But Woods, 42, hasn’t competed at Augusta National in three years, making a comeback after his fourth back surgery.
He has played into Sunday contention at his last two stops. He couldn’t catch Paul Casey at the Valspar Championship, making par at the 72nd hole when a birdie would have forced a playoff, and he tied for fifth a week later at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Woods can still be wayward off the tee, and he’ll need to get acquainted with Augusta’s greens again.
Denied perhaps his best chance at Masters glory by last year’s untimely slip-and-fall on stairs, Johnson remains atop the world rankings but lacks the same momentum.
Three consecutive victories powered the South Carolina native into Augusta a year ago. He has just one win in 2018, in January. And this year, he’ll be staying at a different rental house in Augusta. “It’s just got bad juju, so I’m not going there,” he told reporters during a West Coast stop.
At a place where Jack Nicklaus’s triumph at age 46 remains one of the game’s special moments, Mickelson has a chance to displace him as the oldest Masters winner amid his best spring in years.
Mickelson, 47, has already become the oldest winner of a World Golf Championships event, ending a 4½-year drought without a win when he prevailed a month ago in Mexico. That was the apex in a run of four consecutive top-10 finishes. Though it’s been eight years since his last green jacket, Mickelson tied for third in 2012 and shared runner-up honours in 2015. The Hall of Famer has 11 top-five finishes at Augusta.
A Sunday romp at the Arnold Palmer Invitational reaffirmed McIlroy among the favourites, and the Northern Ireland pro needs a Masters victory to complete the career Grand Slam.
The nagging rib injury that hampered McIlroy’s 2017 season appears healed, though his results were hot-and-cold before Bay Hill. After two top-3 finishes on the European Tour’s Middle Eastern swing, he didn’t place higher than 20th in the United States before landing in Orlando. A green jacket could have been McIlroy’s first major prize — he was leading by four strokes heading into the final round in 2011 before shooting an 80 that included a triple bogey on No. 10, as Charl Schwartzel won.
The two-time Masters winner wasn’t on many radars after a dismal 2017 when he struggled with health issues and equipment problems. Two victories in a six-week span, most recently the WGC Match Play, changed that.
A slow West Coast start dropped Watson out of the world’s top 100 for the first time since 2009, before he found his form at the Genesis Open. His third victory at Riviera ended the slide, and he reached the 18th hole only once in seven rounds of match play.
Watson’s revival follows a period in which he says an undisclosed medical condition caused him to drop weight and had him mulling retirement. A new golf ball deal also had backfired, and he was unable to shape shots the way he had before.
The 21-year-old pro from India became the first man since 2014 to receive a special invitation from Augusta National, given the strength of two European Tour wins this season and holding the 54-hole lead at the WGC Mexico Championship.
The son of an Indian army colonel, Sharma was introduced to golf at age 7 after a chance conversation his father had with Anirban Lahiri’s father — a doctor who was treating Sharma’s mother. Sharma took to the game, turned pro at age 16 and barely qualified for the Asian Tour two years ago. He was ranked outside the world’s top 400 as recently as December before capturing the Joburg Open. Another win two months later in Malaysia got him into the WGC Mexico field.
The 19-year-old from Chile figures to make Augusta National his final amateur start, having stood atop the world amateur rankings since last May.
Niemann might already have started his professional career, but a five-shot victory in the Latin American Amateur Championship — held in his hometown Santiago — earned him a Masters invitation.
He already has secured partial status on the Web.com Tour.
Niemann had planned to play college golf at the University of South Florida, but his test score for English proficiency left him short of admission standards. The teen also has berths awaiting in the U.S. Open and British Open via his No. 1 amateur ranking, but will give those up by turning pro.
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