It’s Masters-mania and Tiger Woods is centre of attention

Tiger Woods watches his drive on the first hole during  practice round at Augusta.
Tiger Woods watches his drive on the first hole during practice round at Augusta.
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This is what gets 
everyone, be it players, spectators or journalists, hooked on sport. Even the build-up has set pulses racing and now it’s time for battle to commence in the 82nd Masters. It is shaping up to be a special affair. Perhaps even the most intriguing contest in the history of this great game.

Just think about it. When can you recall an event that has put golf in the spotlight this particular one is in at Augusta National this week? Maybe back in 2001 when Tiger Woods won here to become the first player to hold all four major titles at the same time. That was great, but this week could be even better.

Rarely has a tournament been more eagerly anticipated and, while Woods is again part of the storyline, remarkably so, it’s the fact that so many of the contenders have come here feeling buoyant that is setting up the next four days to be epic.

“For some people, it’s a once‑in‑a‑lifetime experience to be on the grounds at Augusta National and watch arguably the greatest golf tournament in the world,” observed Rory McIlroy in his pre-event press conference. If this is indeed that one visit for some of the patrons this week, boy are they in for a treat.

It is only right that this scenesetter starts by looking at Woods. After all, most of the focus in the countdown to the season’s opening major has been on him and for good reason, too. A year ago, he genuinely feared he might never be able to play here – or anywhere else – again due to back trouble. He’d have been happy, of course, to settle for the four Green Jackets already hanging in his wardrobe. Yet, thanks to the spinal fusion surgery he had last April, the 42-year-old is not only back playing in this event for the first time since 2015 but is one of those main contenders.

Can he really pull off one of the greatest comebacks in sport? It’s a tall order given that he’s only played a handful of events since returning to action in December, but this place has always brought out the best in him and it just might do again.

“I don’t think there’s one clear‑cut favourite,” said Woods in assessing the battle ahead. “I think there’s so many guys playing well at the same time and that’s what is making this year’s Masters so exciting. There are guys from the early 20s to Phil [Mickelson] at 47 that have all played well.”

Mickelson will replace Jack Nicklaus as the event’s oldest champion if he can claim a fourth Green Jacket at 47, having handed himself a timely boost a few weeks back when landing a first victory since the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield.

“I think there’s a lot of top-quality players, young and old, playing some of their best golf, and I think that’s going to lead to one of the most exciting Masters in years,” predicted Mickelson. “The first two days are going to be every bit as important for me as the last two because it’s going to be very difficult to make up ground with so many great players playing this well.”

They include two-time champion Bubba Watson, pictured left, a double winner on the PGA Tour this season, and, of course, McIlroy. Can this be the week when he makes amends for a last-day capitulation here back in 2011 and land the victory he needs to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods in golf’s career Grand Slam club? “I feel like I couldn’t come here with better form,” insisted the 28-year-old, who was particularly encouraged by his putting performance when he landed the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill last month “It was great to get a win and hopefully I can just carry that golf forward for the next few days. I feel as prepared as I ever have and I’m excited to hit that first tee shot on Thursday afternoon.”

Equally enthusiastic about that gun going off are Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas, the world No 1 and No 2 respectively. Johnson was a red-hot favourite a year ago before slipping on a wooden floor in his rented house and putting himself out of the event with a back injury. Thomas, pictured right, is the man bidding for back-to-back majors after landing the US PGA Championship last August and, at times this season, has played the most impressive golf of anyone in the field.

Then, of course, there’s Jordan Spieth. In comparison to Woods in particular but also Mickelson and McIlroy, he’s flying under the radar this week. That’s astonishing, really, when you consider he’s finished second, first, second and 11th in four starts here. Add in his putting having improved enormously in Houston last week and he could well be the man to beat. “I made big strides in the last two weeks to get from kind of a panic place to a very calm, collected and confident place,” he said.

Sergio Garcia has been in that same place since he broke his major duck at the 74th attempt a year ago and now he’s bidding to become the first player since Woods in 2002 to successfully defend this title. “It was fun to have it for a year,” said the Spaniard of being the Masters champion, “so I would like to extend that if possible.”

Pipped in a play-off by Garcia 12 months ago following a thrilling back-nine battle, Justin Rose is feeling quietly confident about getting back in the mix, with the likes of Jon Rahm, Henrik Stenson, Tommy Fleetwood, Alex Noren, Paul Casey and Ian Poulter, the last man into the field after winning last weekend, also part of a strong European contingent.

In an event that sees Sandy Lyle flying the Saltire solo on the 30th anniversary of becoming the first British player to win here, I’m with six-time champion Jack Nicklaus about who is likely to come out on top. Referring to McIlroy, he said: “I talked to him this weekend and saw a few things and he is really swinging well, the best I’ve ever seen him swing. He obviously putted very well at Bay Hill, so he’s going to be tough to beat.”

Let that battle commence.