AUGUSTA, United States: Tigermania has blossomed along with the azaleas at Augusta National, but 14-time major champion Tiger Woods is just one of the contenders at a Masters that promises to be a classic.
“I don’t think there’s one clear-cut favorite,” said Woods, who is vying to pull off a comeback that would rate among the greatest in sport.
His quest to better Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major titles stalled after he grabbed number 14 at the 2008 US Open.
He owns four Masters green jackets, but hasn’t even teed it up in the stately confines of Augusta National in two years as back trouble threatened to end his career completely.
Pain free at last after spinal fusion surgery last April, Woods has ignited expectations with one runner-up finish and a tie for fifth in five official PGA Tour starts this year—his best finishes since 2015.
Woods himself is at a loss to explain the impressive swing speed and driving distance he never expected to see after having vertebrae in his lower back fused.
“For some reason it has come back,” he said. “All of a sudden I have this pop and my body and my speed’s back and my timing.”
He’ll need all of that, and his vaunted short game and solid putting, on the course famed for the difficulty of its fast, undulating greens.
“This golf course is something else,” Woods said.
The course, however, isn’t the only obstacle standing in Woods’s way, and he knows it.
Former Masters champions Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson signalled their intentions with recent wins, Mickelson ending a near five-year title drought in March and Watson halting a two-year dry-spell at Riviera before hoisting another trophy at the WGC Match-Play.
“I think there’s so many guys playing well at the same time. I think that’s what is making this year’s Masters so exciting, that there’s so many guys,” Woods said.
Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, vying to complete a career Grand Slam with a first green jacket, boosted his confidence with a victory at Bay Hill in March.
“I feel like I found something with my putting over the past few weeks, and in good time, because obviously you need to putt these greens very well,” McIlroy said. “I’m looking forward to see what the week holds.”
Johnson’s No. 1 under threat
World number one Dustin Johnson comes in on a mission, having missed the Masters last year thanks to a freak fall on the stairs that halted the hottest streak of his career in its tracks.
Johnson opened the year with a USPGA Tour Tournament of Champions win, but three players have a shot at toppling him from number one with a victory this week.
Justin Thomas, 24, heads that list, and arrives at the Masters buoyed by a win at the Honda Classic, a runner-up finish at the WGC-Mexico Championship and a fourth-placed finish at the WGC-Match Play.
Should Thomas falter, Spain’s third-ranked Jon Rahm or world number four Jordan Spieth—Masters champion in 2015—could conceivably overtake Johnson this week.
“I think there’s a lot of players, a lot of the top quality players, young and old, are playing some of their best golf, and I think that’s going to lead to one of the most exciting Masters in years,” Mickelson said.
Spain’s Sergio Garcia faces a tall order in seeking to join Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo as the only players to successfully defend the Masters title.
England’s Justin Rose insists his runner-up finish to Garcia last year left him not demoralized but determined.
The age range of the players tipped to contend is astonishing.
“There are guys from their early 20s to Phil at 47 that have all played well,” Woods noted.
Among that younger crew, Woods is an inspiration and, to those who have played on US match play teams he has helped shepherd in the past two years, a mentor.
“It’s flattering, it’s nice,” Woods said. “But I still want to compete and I want to beat these guys and hopefully this will be a good week.”
McIlroy, for one, thinks it’s not too farfetched to think it could happen this week.
“Any time Tiger Woods is healthy and in this sort of form, he’s dangerous at any golf tournament,” McIlroy said. “But given his history here, I think even more so.”