From the days of the late, great Arnold Palmer facing off against the formidable Jack Nicklaus, the Masters Tournament has golfers and golf fans alike daydreaming of groomed greens and toasts at the 19th hole. Unlike golf's other major championships, the Masters is played at the same course in the same city each year, with the Augusta National Golf Club a revered venue among not just the golfing community, but also much of the sporting world. As an invitational event, the Masters has a much smaller number of players than those of the other three majors, with only golfers at the top of their game likely to make the cut.
This being the case, it's safe to say that anticipation for the Masters this April is beginning to heat up. As the first major of the golfing calendar, it sets the standard for the entire sport. And, let's face it, who doesn't want to tune in to see Tiger do his thing and, potentially, take home his fifth green jacket? It's a funny old game, though, golf. Former winners and favorites before the tournaments don't always go on to do well, with the latter too often falling by the wayside without that eagerly awaited victory. The myth that low odds don't offer value often gets debunked, but in the case of golf, it might actually hold true.
Although perhaps not as obvious a candidate for the 2018 green jacket, his recent victory in Mexico reaffirms Phil Mickelson's amazing ability to achieve greatness in a sport whose winner's circle is increasingly populated by younger players. Due to celebrate his 48th birthday in June, Mickelson has previous Augusta victories paving his way for a comeback, finishing first in 2004, ’06 and ’10. The veteran left-hander has seen his work with seasoned swing specialist Andrew Getson pay off, as Mickelson appears to have made a miraculous improvement, keeping it tighter, more fluid and more consistent. With a brand-new swing putting less stress on his body and contributing greatly to his longevity as a leading professional, it is no surprise that Phil Mickelson is in red-hot form and getting ready to add another Masters win to his already impressive resume!
Somewhat of a Masters bridesmaid, Rory McIlroy is a four-time major champion, winning the 2011 U.S Open, ’12 PGA Championship, ’14 Open Championship and ’14 PGA Championship. A pity that Augusta has always eluded him. Of course, all that could be about to change, if his most recent successes – like triumphing at the latest Arnold Palmer Invitational – are anything to go by. While McIlroy's form is trending nicely, with consistently strong ball-striking and a much-improved putting display thanks to words of wisdom from fellow pro Brad Faxon, he must do all he can to stay focused as he prepares to compete at Augusta this year. Having regained his confidence on the greens, there's no reason why 2018 can't be the year Rory McIlroy takes the title.
A hole-in-one for anyone who can guess what connects this young prodigy with the legend that is Jack Nicklaus. Aww, all right, I'll put you out of your misery! Spieth joins the Golden Bear as the second player ever to win three out of four majors before turning 24. Spieth's mastery of the greens was seldom better displayed than when he won the Masters in 2015, tying the tournament record of 18-under par. This victory drove him to greatness, elevating him from the relatively unknown to a household name. The following year he was named as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people, amazing for somebody with their whole career still ahead of them. With a reputation for shattering records and so much left to play for, Spieth at the very least will make a formidable opponent during this year's Masters Tournament.
If Rory McIlroy is a Masters bridesmaid, Justin Rose is the Maid of Honor. Having been runner-up twice, in 2015 and ’17, Rose will surely be setting his sights on this year's title, and hopefully without any painful playoff rounds. What makes this an especially exciting time for golf fans everywhere is not only the fact that Rose is in contention for the second major of his understated career, but that the memories of his gold medal victory at the 2016 Rio Olympics – the first men's golf tournament of its kind to be held in 112 years – are still lingering in people's minds, and I think I speak for many when I say: a repeat performance wouldn't go amiss. Although Rose has adopted a more relaxed approach in the run-up to this year's Masters, he has been doing more than enough to suggest that he can be the best bet when it comes to winning the tournament.
Who else is excited for golf's greatest comeback story since Paul Laurie won the 1999 British Open over favorite Jean van de Velde (just don't go in the water!)? Just me? Anyway, after overcoming injury while trying to patch his personal life back together, golf's favourite son is not about to duck out of playing a round at Augusta. With a fifth green jacket at stake, Tiger has already won his way back into our hearts, exceeding the expectations of many at the Valspar Championship, where he finished just one shot behind Paul Casey. But it's not only his game that's got the fans cheering more than they have in a long time – his attitude has also undergone a radical transformation, from that of an old pro with no fight left in him to one resembling an energising leader worth believing in again. In this game, whether you like or dislike a player doesn't matter, it’s all about dedication and the hard work they put in, and no one can deny that Woods has shown power and finesse in his resurgence, and is ready to rise to the challenge of taking the Masters title once more.
Ones to Watch
There are many great golfing names that should be looked out for during this year's tournament, and if I'm being honest, any one of them could go on to take the top spot. It is difficult to forget Sergio Garcia's stunning Masters victory last year, putting him firmly in contention for a second title. And if Bubba Watson keeps his form up, there is no reason that the coveted green jacket couldn't be his for an incredible third time. Let's also not leave out current World Number 1 Dustin Johnson; Jason Day, refocused and refreshed after a difficult year; and England's own Danny Willett, who (like García) is aiming for his second win. Whoever you're rooting for, there's no denying that the 2018 Masters has all the ingredients to be a tournament to remember.