Masters 2018: Augusta abuzz as anticipation builds for major
There is something in the air at Augusta.
Swirling among the towering pines and banks of azaleas is a whiff of something special.
A mingling mist of then and now, as golf’s hottest young players coincide with the twin resurgence of ageing past champions Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at the Masters.
It’s being hyped as potentially the best Masters in recent times.
The budding bromance between Woods and Mickelson, once arch rivals turned Tuesday practice partners, just stirs this strange soup in the year’s first major at the spectacular Augusta National.
Four-time champion Woods, 42, is the headline act, playing at Augusta for the first time since 2015 after undergoing a fourth back procedure — spine fusion surgery — last April.
He is playing pain free and recent results suggest he has a lively chance of earning a 15th major title this week, 10 years after his last.
Roars reverberating around the towering Georgia pines are a thing of Masters legend on a Sunday afternoon, but Woods sparked Monday and Tuesday roars with a handful of eagles in practice.
“I have never seen it like that here, ever,” he told the Golf Channel. “I’ve never seen that kind of excitement.”
The 47-year-old Mickelson, an owner of three Masters green jackets, won his first tournament for five years last month and appears re-energized. Victory Sunday would make him the oldest Masters champion, eclipsing the 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus in 1986.
And it would take him alongside former world No.1 Woods, who for much of his career has been a thorn in his side. The pair have grown closer of late and Mickelson is the first to applaud his countryman’s impact on the game.
“Nobody respects and appreciates what he’s done for the game more than me,” Mickelson told a media conference.
Grand slam chasing
Rory McIlroy is another who has begun 2018 looking refreshed, following a year hampered by injury, and the Northern Irishman also won recently.
The 28-year-old is bidding for a green jacket to complete the career grand slam, the set of all four of golf’s major titles. Only five others have done it — Woods, Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen.
McIlroy has previous at Augusta — that famous meltdown in 2011 when leading by four — but he has since won four majors and is the only player to have placed in the top 10 in the last four Masters.
“I’m an avid fan of the history of the game and I know a win here would put me alongside some of the greatest to have ever played this game and that would mean an awful lot to me but I have to try to clear my head of that come Thursday morning,” he told reporters.
Then there’s Jordan Spieth, with a victory in 2015 and two seconds in four appearances at Augusta.
The 24-year-old won a thrilling British Open last summer for a third major title but after a slow start to the season he was third in his last run out in Houston.
But as good as Spieth has been at Augusta, the spectre of his collapse on the 12th hole when leading in the final round in 2016 will always lurk around Amen Corner.
“I should a have chance to win this week but if I don’t it’s coming soon,” Spieth said Tuesday.
Another American Bubba Watson has won twice at Augusta and clinched the recent WGC Match Play event in Austin, Texas. The lanky left-hander is mercurial, but saves his best for the Masters.
The winner of golf’s last major, the US PGA, is Justin Thomas and the American, a childhood friend of Spieth, is arguably golf’s hottest talent.
The 24-year-old is only playing his third Masters but victory at the Honda Classic and second to Mickelson in Mexico confirms the Kentucky kid should be in the reckoning.
“This is a course where you don’t need to be on your AA game to get around, you just need to be smart,” said Thomas.
And all that’s without mentioning world No.1 Dustin Johnson, who missed last year following a freak injury from slipping down stairs at his rental home on the eve of the event.
The big-hitting 33-year-old has become somewhat becalmed on a single major victory at the 2016 US Open, but when he is on song he can overpower the field.
“This year is a completely different year and I’ve got a lot of confidence here this week,” he told reporters.
‘The buzz is so special’
England’s Justin Rose, the Olympic champion, was runner-up to Spaniard Sergio Garcia last year and was also second in 2015 and should be in the mix, while world No.2 Jon Rahm of Spain has form, if not Masters experience.
“For this week I’m high on confidence, low on expectation because there’s so many scenarios that could play out,” Rose, the 2013 US Open winner, told the Golf Channel.
Australian Jason Day is another recent winner looking to build on decent Masters credentials following his runner-up spot on his debut at Augusta in 2011.
“Everyone’s kind of solely focused on Tiger and what he’s going to do here and seeing if he can get to No 15,” said the former world No. 1. “That’s fine with me.
“I think on my good day I’ve got a good chance of beating him. I honestly believe that. I think that there’s 10, 20 other guys out there that honestly believe they can beat Tiger as well at his good day.”
As the only one of golf’s four majors to be played at the same venue every year, Augusta has built up myriad memories over the years.
From the spectacular setting and enduring traditions such as Tuesday’s Champions dinner and Wednesday’s par-three competition, to spectacular shots, infamous collapses and great champions, the Masters is a spring rite and one of sport’s most revered events.
This year, it seems, could have extra gloss.
“The buzz this year is so special and running deep and wide,” said former champion Zach Johnson.
“Having Tiger back at this level is awesome, through the young guns, through Phil, there’s one thing this tournament has and that’s drama.”