By Andrew Both
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) – The unmistakable presence of Tiger Woods looms large over the U.S. Masters but a bunch of talented, hungry and in-form players ensure that the year’s first major championship will be much more than a one-man show.
Woods will attract the most attention, at least for the first two rounds, but Justin Thomas, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy loom as the players to beat among the many who are peaking at just the right time.
For all their credentials, however, the favourites will all be overshadowed by Woods as the 14-times major champion competes at Augusta for the first time since 2015.
Woods, wearing a pink shirt and grey pants, was on-site at Augusta National on Monday for his highly-anticipated appearance.
But he has not won at Augusta since 2005 and, despite his unexpected good form during his comeback from spinal fusion surgery, the 42-year-old will have his work cut out to secure a fifth Green Jacket.
While Woods has demonstrated an explosive swing and a deft short game, the reality is that he has not won a major since claiming the U.S. Open in 2008.
He has also reached an age where the odds are clearly stacked against him.
American world number two Thomas has not yet gained the fame of some his peers, but he is one of the players to beat as he goes for his second straight major, to add to his PGA Championship triumph last August.
He showed he is in top form with his semi-final appearance at the WGC-Match Play. His length off the tee, allied with his overall stellar repertoire, makes the 24-year-old a perfect candidate to break through in his third appearance at Augusta.
Englishman Rose has been the best player in the world for most of the past five months and knows his way around Augusta, as two runner-up finishes in the past three years attests. A playoff loss to Sergio Garcia last year will only further fuel his competitive fires.
A Green Jacket is the only prize missing from Northern Irishman McIlroy’s major collection – with his best finish at Augusta being fourth in 2015. What he needs is for his putter to co-operate if he is to complete the career grand slam.
Americans Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson are among the other contenders.
Spieth’s short-range putting has been an issue recently but he seemed to get on the right track with a closing 66 and a tie for third at the Houston Open on Sunday.
Johnson, meanwhile, has pulled off the unlikely feat of being the world number one and a forgotten man at the same time.
He lost all three matches at the Match Play two weeks ago, but will tee it up with an eye on redemption this week, 12 months after he fell down stairs at his rental home on the eve of the tournament and injured his back.
The severe bruising knocked him out of a tournament for which he was the heavy favorite.
Twice Masters winner Watson has re-ignited his career with two victories in his past four starts.
His ability to work the ball at will would have allowed him to be a trick shot artist if tournament golf had not worked out, and his confidence will be sky high.
Champion Garcia cannot be written off either. Though he has been recently pre-occupied with the arrival of his first child, the popular Spaniard will no doubt turn his attention back on the day job when he tees off for Thursday’s first round.
(Reporting by Andrew Both, editing by Pritha Sarkar)