With the Masters a mere week away, it's time to take a look at what to watch for at this year's first major. The flurry of big name winners and returns make the 2018 Masters the most anticipated event in decades. Even Jim Nantz remarked:
Here's what Nantz is so excited about.
The big cat
Golf's biggest star is back! Tiger Woods will tee it up in Augusta for the first time since his t17th finish in 2015 and just his second time since 2013. It's been a shocking turn of events. Six months ago, it was uncertain if Woods would ever play golf again, but he now heads into Augusta as the betting favorite. Woods became the favorite after his stellar play in his past three starts. Woods finished 12th at the Honda Classic, 2nd and one shot out of a playoff at the Valspar, and he made a Sunday charge into contention at Bay Hill before settling for a t5th.
Woods last donned the green jacket in 2005, but his track record at Augusta is impeccable. In his 18 starts as a professional, Woods has never missed a cut, winning four times, finishing runner-up twice and notching six other top-six finishes.
Expectations for Woods are high, and his improvement from start to start has been remarkable. I wouldn't make him my personal betting favorite, but he is in the discussion.
The career slam
After a string of disappointing performances to start his season in the United States, hope for Rory's bid at the Career Grand Slam reached an all-time low. After getting a putting tip from Brad Faxon, Rory put together a dominant performance to win the Bay Hill and regain his status as a favorite at Augusta. This will be his fourth attempt to complete the career grand slam. McIlroy has finished in the top ten in each of the past four Masters but hasn't contended on a Sunday since 2011, when he was done in by a disastrous final-round 80.
Rory's hopes will come down to his putter. If we see a performance in the same ballpark as Bay Hill, he will be tough to beat. If we see a performance like his other five PGA Tour starts in 2018, it will be another back door top 10.
First since Jack
At age 47, Phil Mickelson will seek to become the oldest winner ever of the Masters. The three-time Masters winner is amidst a resurgent season thanks to finding a few yards with the driver. Mickelson is averaging over 300 yards off the tee, up seven yards from 2017 and ranks 4th in the PGA Tour's strokes gained: approach statistic, up from 14th in 2017. The stats have translated to big-time finishes. In his last four stroke play events, Mickelson has notched a t5th at the Waste Management, a t2nd at Pebble Beach, a t6th at Riviera and a win at the WGC Mexico. It's arguably the best form Mickelson has ever had preceding the Masters.
Jordan Spieth's four appearances at Augusta have resulted in a win ('15), two runner-ups ('14&'16) and a t11th ('17). The 24-year-old has three major championship wins and fourteen worldwide wins but will head to Augusta with questions due a lackluster start to 2018. Spieth's best finish on the season is a t9th at Riviera, and it's the first time he's failed to record a win before the Masters since 2014. Spieth's usually dominant putter has been ice-cold in 2018, ranking 172nd strokes gained: putting on the PGA Tour. Spieth currently sports 14 to 1 odds behind Woods, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose.
The best without a Masters
A few major champions who have yet to don a Green Jacket will be on the short list of favorites at Augusta.
Justin Thomas has the look of the best player in the world. Thomas has 7 wins in his last 34 starts, a stretch that included the 2017 PGA Championship, FedEx Cup and Player of the Year honors. Thomas ranks in the top 60 in both strokes gained categories and notably 6th in the important SG: Approach. In his third visit to Augusta, Thomas will look to build off of his t39th (2016) and t22nd (2017) and capture his second major championship.
After winning three straight events leading up to last year's Masters, Dustin Johnson was the heavy favorite. Then a Wednesday "tumble" forced Dustin Johnson to withdraw from the 2017 championship. The world's number one-ranked player heads into this year's event in strong form with a win and no finish outside the top 16 in his six stroke play starts in 2018. Johnson's win came at Kapalua, a course with loads of uneven lies in the fairways that mimic Augusta National. It will be DJ's first start at Augusta as a major champion, coming off a t6th (2015) and t4th (2016) in his last two Masters.
In his last fifteen starts, Justin Rose has notched three wins and failed to finish in the top ten only twice. The Englishman has never missed the cut at Augusta in his twelve appearances, hasn't finished outside the top 25 since 2009 and has two runner-ups in the last three years. Rose's rock solid tee-to-green game make him a regular contender at Augusta, and his form leading up to this year's event makes him one of the favorites.
Finishing runner-up in his first Masters appearance (2011), Jason Day seemed destined for many green jackets. Seven injury-riddled years later, the talented Aussie is still seeking his first. Day has been stellar in 2018 notching a win, a runner-up and a t22nd in his three stroke play starts. Day is leading the PGA Tour in strokes gained: putting, and when his ball-striking is passable he is tough to beat.
After capturing his second win of the season at last week's WGC Dell Match Play, the two-time Masters Champion Bubba Watson heads to Magnolia Lane as a favorite. A shocking development considering heading into Riviera, Bubba Watson ranked 117th in the world and had one top-ten finish in over a year. Much like Riviera, Augusta is a course where it's imperative for players to approach shots from the proper angles to attack pins. Watson has had such great success at each course because of his ability to manufacture angles by shaping his shots. Couple Watson's creativity with his immense power and great form, and it's easy to see why he's on the short list of favorites.
The conversation around major championships will always turn to the best players without a major. Here's a rundown of who could earn their first major championship at Augusta...
Rickie Fowler found himself in the hunt at last year's Masters but sputtered with a final-round 76 to fall to 11th place. It was Slick Rick's third top-12 finish in his past four starts at Augusta. Fowler's play leading up to this Masters has been spotty, but he is having his best season ever with his irons, ranking 12th in strokes gained: approach. If his putter heats up (127th in SG: putting) to last year's standards (2nd in SG: putting), Fowler will have another shot on Sunday.
Despite Tiger's return, the biggest golf story in Japan will remain Hideki Matsuyama's quest to become the country's first major champion. Since returning from a wrist injury that sidelined him for six weeks, Matsuyama has finished t49th at Bay Hill and third in his pool at the WGC Match Play. The 26-year-old Japanese star will make his seventh appearance at Augusta and comes in with three straight top-11 finishes at the event. Matsuyama is one of the world's best ball-strikers, and if his putter is decent, he will contend late on Sunday.
The world's 3rd-ranked player, Jon Rahm, will make his second start at the Masters. Rahm found himself in the mix on Sunday last year but tumbled down the leaderboard to t23rd thanks to a final-round 75. With the return of Tiger, JT's dominant play and Rory's win it seems that Jon Rahm is flying under the radar. Rahm has shown the ability to dominate at big events through his six shot win at last year's Irish Open.
A win at this year's Valspar ended Paul Casey's three year drought. The Englishman has 16 worldwide professional wins on his career and has been one of the world's most consistent players. His ball-striking and magnificent iron play make him a regular contender at Augusta. In his last three starts at the Masters, Casey has two t6th's and a t4th finish, with a win under his belt Casey has to be on the radar for a potential major breakthrough.
The defending champ...
Couldn't not mention last year's champion, Sergio Garcia who finally broke through in a major championship. Garcia comes in to the event in fine form with a 4th at the Valspar and t7th at Bay Hill, his last two stroke play starts. As Garcia proved last year, if his putter cooperates he can win anywhere.
The state of the game
A storyline outside of the competition is new Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley's Wednesday press conference. Ridley is the last U.S. Amateur Champion to retain his amateur status, served as the Walker Cup Captain and is now one of the most powerful people in golf. It will be interesting to see how Ridley addresses technology and changes to Augusta National during his tenure. Wednesday's presser should reveal Ridley's thoughts on the pressing issues of the ball, the growing distance problem and what the future holds not only for Augusta and the Masters but the rest of golf.
Those are the big ones to watch, as the week continues check back on the site for more Masters coverage. If you haven't yet be sure to refresh your memories with our ranking of the last ten Masters.