It’s that time again. The telly goes a weird shade of green and starts piping syrupy piano music into your living room as a backdrop to lingering close-ups of azaleas, water features and Jack Nicklaus striding, putter aloft, towards the 17th hole.
Yes, folks, it’s the Masters and a weekend of TV golf porn from Augusta National awaits those desperate for their annual fix of goings on in the opening major of the men’s season.
This year’s edition at the so-called Cathedral in the Pines is shaping up to be a classic but even in a limited-field invitational tournament such as this, the rarefied air at such a storied event and on one of the toughest courses in golf means that even among the narrowed-down elite there are only a few properly equipped to tame Alister Mackenzie’s masterpiece.
Sure, the odd outlier breaks the glass ceiling but more often than not it is a well-qualified, course-ready champion who enters Butler Cabin on Sunday night and dons that famous Green Jacket.
You could honestly pick 10 or 15 contenders with a genuine shot at glory this weekend but here we give you six form golfers whose game is also perfectly suited to the demands of Augusta National.
Remember a year ago when Wayne Gretzky’s son in law was the next Masters champion in waiting? Newly ensconced as world number one after three wins in his previous three starts, the reigning US Open champion then went for a slide in his sports socks down a couple of steps at his rental home and his tournament was over before it began, stymied by a back injury.
A year on and No.1 for 59 weeks now, the languid American remains wonderfully equipped to tame Augusta. He hits it a mile but also has the short-game imagination and putter to match. Backers will hope he has rented a bungalow this year.
Back in form at the age of 47 having won for the first time since 2013 at the WGC-Mexico Championship in March, when he saw off Justin Thomas, no less, in a play-off, Lefty is in a perfect spot to cash in on his Masters expertise. A three-time champion with the creative long and short game to conquer Augusta National, Mickelson also has two runner-up finishes here, the same as Tiger, with whom he played a rare practice round this week. He must be in a good place.
The Englishman arrived at Augusta 12 months ago with a back problem and almost left with a green jacket. His time at the Masters simply has to come for his record around this course is remarkably consistent. Last year continued the Olympic champion’s run of 12 cuts made in 12 starts and a top-25 finish every year since 2009. His agonising play-off defeat and a runner-up finish to Sergio Garcia proved he is more than just making up the numbers.
Now at the grand old age of 24, the world number four from Texas is tournament favourite for a reason and primed to rebound from a Masters worst finish last year of tied 11th. Spieth has looked at ease around Augusta National from his debut here in 2014, finishing tied for second, then winning at the second attempt a year later.
His runner-up finish in 2016 came after a nightmare at the par-three 12th which opened the door for Danny Willett but we forgive him that one blip and his course average from admittedly just 16 competitive rounds is a field-leading 70.38 (which includes an opening 75 last year). Most importantly, Augusta’s lightning-fast greens hold no fear for Spieth. He remains the game’s pre-eminent putter and that is worth its weight in gold at the Masters.
When you can bend it like Bubba did to win the 2012 Masters with a miraculous recovery shot out of the pine straw on number 10 to win a play-off with Louis Oosthuizen, you will always have a chance at Augusta National. Big-hitting left-hander Watson proved he was no flash in the pan two years later when won a second green jacket and the way he can tame the par-fives, reducing the dogleg-left 13th to driver-wedge, means if his form is right and his head is in the right place, he will always have a shot at the Masters. Two victories already this year suggest the stars have once again aligned.
The highlight reel from Augusta National could make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and after two years of struggles with a serious back problem when he admitted competing was just a “pipe dream” the Tiger is back on the prowl. You don’t win a Masters by chance and Woods has won four of them.
Amazingly it is 13 years since his last green jacket but the 14-time major champion is so comfortable around here he has turned up since then with his game and/or his personal life in tatters and still earned SEVEN top-10 finishes. This year, having missed three of the last four Masters (and still getting a T17 in 2015) Woods arrives fit, happy, relaxed and in form, who knows where that could take him.
Hold on! What about Rory McIlroy? We know he has the game and that he has shown over the years that he has all the elements to get the better of Augusta National, he has just never put it all together over four rounds at the Masters.
The Irishman arrives this year with a long-awaited victory under his belt, at Bay Hill if you don’t mind, and his putting process, always an Achilles’ heel for McIlroy, is more relaxed since taking advice from Brad Faxon recently. We just dare not mention him as a contender.