The Masters: Tiger Woods adds fuel to the Augusta fire

Tiger Woods looks over a putt on the first hole during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Tiger Woods looks over a putt on the first hole during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
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Describing the 82nd Masters as the most eagerly anticipated in tournament history overlooks the events of 17 years ago when golfing history would be made at Augusta National.

But there is no denying the common denominator between the two has added a palpable extra dimension to the build-up to the year’s first major championship which has rarely been seen in recent times.

Back in 2001, Tiger Woods was attempting to become the first player to hold all four major titles at the same time following victories in the US Open, Open Championship and US PGA the previous year.

It was a phenomenal feat Woods would achieve in style, with a 16-under-par total – the fourth best in Masters history at the time – giving him a two-shot victory over David Duval and completing what was dubbed the “Tiger Slam”.

Seventeen years on, Woods returns to Augusta as a self-proclaimed “walking miracle” following spinal fusion surgery last April, shortly after he reportedly told Jack Nicklaus “I’m done” after struggling to sit through the Champions Dinner due to the pain from his back shooting down his leg.

The 42-year-old’s form on the PGA Tour this season has made him a genuine contender for a fifth Masters victory and a first major title since 2008, prompting suggestions that such a result would be the greatest sporting comeback of all time.

Matthew Fitzpatrick, of England, jumps over Rae's Creek on the 13th hole during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Matthew Fitzpatrick, of England, jumps over Rae's Creek on the 13th hole during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Woods himself introduced a welcome sense of perspective when he highlighted the story of Ben Hogan, who survived a near-fatal car crash in 1949 and went on to win all three of the majors he played in 1953, including his sole appearance in the Open Championship, which clashed with the US PGA.

But whether Sergio Garcia slips the famous green jacket onto Woods’ shoulders or anyone else’s, all the signs point to a classic contest which elicits the final-round roars which reverberate around the course on Sunday.

Three-time champion Phil Mickelson is five years older than Woods and until recently was also without a victory since 2013, but beating Justin Thomas in a play-off for the WGC-Mexico Championship makes the left-hander a genuine candidate to surpass Nicklaus as the oldest Masters winner.

Rory McIlroy’s own winning drought was only 18 months but the manner in which it ended, with a final round of 64 to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational, catapulted the Northern Irishman back to the top of the betting market.

But no matter what, this week is going to be amazing. And the most beautiful thing about it is that I get to play the Masters until I can’t walk. So that’s pretty cool.

Sergio Garcia

McIlroy’s first three attempts to become the sixth player to complete the career grand slam have resulted in finishes of fourth, 10th and seventh, although it is noticeable that his best chance to win also remains his worst memory of Augusta, namely squandering a four-shot lead in 2011 with a final-round collapse.

World No 1 Dustin Johnson was a hot favourite 12 months ago on the back of three straight wins, only to injure his back in a fall at his rental home and withdraw just minutes before his first-round tee time.

And the former US Open champion could surrender top spot in the rankings to Thomas if the US PGA champion makes it successive major victories.

With so many other storylines around, including a resurgent Bubba Watson seeking a third green jacket, Garcia has been somewhat overlooked as he tries to emulate Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Woods as the only back-to-back Masters champions, with the birth of his first child – a daughter named Azalea after Augusta’s 13th hole – a welcome distraction.

“This is my first time defending a major and a green jacket, so it’s new to me,” said Garcia. “But no matter what, this week is going to be amazing. And the most beautiful thing about it is that I get to play the Masters until I can’t walk. So that’s pretty cool.”

There is also Ian Poulter who arrives fresh from his victory in Houston at the weekend, one that he needed to secure his place in the Masters field.

“I’m the least prepared as I’ve ever been but I need to stay fresh because I know this golf course very well. I love this place,” said the Englishman, ahead of his 13th appearance at the Masters.

“Thirteen is an unlucky number but I don’t feel it is after I’ve made it in.”

Another Englishman looking for a Masters breakthrough is Justin Rose, the man beaten in a play-off by Garcia 12 months ago.

Jordan Spieth is a player built for Augusta with a win, and two second-places in four starts, but he arrives with question marks over his once unflappable putting.

“I made big strides in the last two weeks to get from kind of a panic place to a very calm, collected and confident place,” said the 2015 Masters champion.

And finally there’s the Yorkshire contingent; surprise 2016 champion Danny Willett who is in need of regaining some positive vibes after a difficult spell since his career high, and fellow Sheffielder Matthew Fitzpatrick, who has quietly been going about his business. All of which makes for a fascinating four days.