The stage is set for a Masters Tournament that has had such a huge buildup that even the players are excited to see how it plays out this week.
“It’s going to be fun,” said Tiger Woods, who goes off at 10:42 a.m. in Thursday’s first round. “I think that everyone’s really looking forward to it, not just from the spectators, but from the players as well.”
All ages of players – from 23-year-old Jon Rahm to 47-year-old Phil Mickelson– have their games in top form for the year’s first major championship. Then there is the return to Augusta National of four-time champion Woods, 42, who is playing like the Woods of old.
“I’m a golf fan,” said former British Open champion Henrik Stenson. “I love the game. Anytime as a fan you can watch a sporting event that has that little bit extra, that just makes it more exciting to watch it and follow it.”
Fred Ridley, the new chairman of Augusta National and the Masters, offered similar sentiments at his news conference Wednesday.
“This is my 42nd Masters and I have never been a part of a week where there’s been any more excitement,” he said.
Ridley added to that air of excitement when he announced the establishment of the first women’s event – the Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship – to be held at the club next year. The 54-hole tournament will feature 72 invitees who will play 36 holes at Champions Retreat in Evans, with the final 18 played at Augusta National after a cut to the low 30. The dates for the event are April 4-6, with the final round held the day before the annual Drive, Chip and Putt competition at Augusta National.
At this year’s tournament, the headliner is Woods, who has missed three of the past four Masters, including the past two, because of serious back problems. The 14-time major champion last won in 2013. His last major came in 2008 at the U.S. Open, and his last Masters win was in 2005.
For young players such as Rahm and 24-year-old Justin Thomas, this is the first time they’ve played in a Masters that included Woods, the co-holder of the Masters scoring record and a 12-shot winner in 1997.
“It’s something that probably a lot of people would have never thought it would ever happen again, even though we all hoped for it,” Rahm said, referring to a healthy Woods. “I’m just glad he’s playing great again, and hopefully he’s healthy enough to keep playing and keep playing great.”
After missing all of 2016 and most of 2017, Woods had anterior lumbar interbody fusion surgery just over a year ago, and it has given him a new lease on life. He’s pain-free, and his clubhead speed of 129 mph was the fastest on the PGA Tour through mid-March.
Since his return, which started in December, Woods has played in six tournaments. He hasn’t won, but he’s been within a shot of the lead on the back nine in his past three starts. He’s broken par in each of his past 10 rounds.
“The big thing on my mind is that obviously Tiger is back and he’s playing well and everyone is excited to see what he can do,” Stenson said. “He’s arguably the best golfer that ever played the game.”
Woods has dominated the pre-tournament talk to the point that Justin Rose, last year’s runner-up, didn’t even have to refer to him by name. He simply said “someone else” is playing well when asked about the favorites.
“Tiger who?” joked Charley Hoffman, last year’s first-round leader.
Sportsbook.ag has Woods and Jordan Spieth as co-favorites. The third top betting choices are world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, Thomas and Rory McIlroy.
“I don’t think there’s one clear-cut favorite,” Woods said. “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, is that there’s so many guys. We know we’re going to have to play well in order to win, and it’s going to be quite a challenge.”
Some of the attention Thursday will also be on what kind of start McIlroy, who goes off at 1:38 p.m., can muster. McIlroy is taking his fourth crack at completing the career grand slam, needing a victory here. McIlroy, who is coming off a victory at Bay Hill in mid-March, has broken 70 in the first round just once in his nine Masters appearances. He opened with 72-73 last year and finished with 71-69 to tie for seventh.
“I’m an avid fan of the history of the game, and I know a win here and what that would mean and where that would put me in history alongside some of the greatest that have ever played this game, and that would mean an awful lot to me,” McIlroy said. “But I try and clear my head of that come Thursday morning and go out and play good golf, hit good golf shots, have good course management, hole putts. If you do that enough times, hopefully that score on Sunday evening’s the lowest out of all the competitors that are here and you walk away with something that you’ll have for the rest of your life.”
Defending champion Sergio Garcia says “eight to 10 players” have a chance to win this week, but Rahm, the No. 3-ranked player in the world, believes that number is much higher because Augusta National is a course that “allows any kind of player” to win, he said.
“That’s why you get many different winners,” Rahm said. “You get someone like Mike Weir, you get somebody like Angel Cabrera, Sergio, Seve (Ballesteros), Phil, Tiger, people who hit it straight, people who don’t hit it straight, people like Bubba (Watson). It just means that if there’s 5,000 ways to play one regular course, there’s probably about 50,000 ways to go around Augusta National, and that’s the beauty of it.”