Monday, 4 April 2016

The Masters - Preview

Rory McIlroy
Golf's first major of the year is almost upon us, with the world's finest players preparing to make their annual pilgrimage to one of sport's most iconic venues.

The first tee shot will be hit on Thursday, 7 April, with a field of fewer than 100 men aiming to sink the winning putt on Sunday, 10 April.

World number one Jason Day, Jordan Spieth - bidding to become the first man to defend the title since Tiger Woods in 2002 - and four-time major winner Rory McIlroy head the field in the year's first major.

Few people, including the bookmakers, are looking past the world's top three players - Day, Spieth and McIlroy - to set the agenda at Augusta.

Day and world number two Spieth won three of last year's four majors, while 26-year-old McIlroy is looking to complete the career Grand Slam.

Spieth, 22, has failed to find his best form in recent weeks, missing a cut for only the eighth time since the start of the 2014 season, before narrowly avoiding another early exit two weeks later.

The American defended his form after being called "garbage" by an internet 'troll', while McIlroy backed his rival by insisting Spieth's form was "not slumping".

US PGA champion Day, 28, has continued his fine start to the season by winning back-to-back tournaments, showing little rustiness from a three-month break at the end of last year after becoming a father for the second time.

The Australian suffered an injury scare in his opening pool match at last month's WGC-Dell Match Play, but recovered to win the tournament for the second time in three years.

McIlroy steps on to Augusta's first tee on Thursday aiming to become only the sixth man to claim the clean sweep.

Rory is seeking a first Masters title following victories at the US Open, the Open Championship and the US PGA.

Winning the Green Jacket would propel him into exalted company alongside Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Gene Sarazen, Gary Player and Ben Hogan.

And that is the world number three's main priority. "It's all about Augusta," he said last month.

McIlroy will miss Augusta's annual Par 3 Contest, which takes place the day before Thursday's first round, in order to concentrate on winning the year's first major.

"Maybe the decision not to play it this year can work in my favour," he said, perhaps bearing in mind the 'Par 3 curse' - no player has won both in the same year.

McIlroy might well offer the best hope of providing a first European winner since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999, but he is just one of 16 British and Irish players aiming to emulate the Spaniard.

Former US Open champion Justin Rose, currently ranked eighth in the world, continues his search for a second major, while fellow Englishman Danny Willett is expected to make his second Augusta appearance following the birth of his first child.

The Yorkshireman has risen from outside the top 100 to the fringe of the top 10 in less than two years.

Familiar names such as Lee Westwood - who sneaked into the world's top 50 in mid-December to qualify - Paul Casey, Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Ian Poulter all return to Augusta.

England's Andy Sullivan and Scotland's Russell Knox, who both broke into the top 50 last year, will step into the locker room for the first time.

At the other end of the scale, veterans Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam, both 58, will play after accepting their annual invites as past champions.

Europe's contingent have not won at Augusta since two-time winner Olazabal's last success 17 years ago, allowing American players to regain dominance of the Masters in recent years.

The famed Georgia course has produced eight home winners in the past 12 years - and, as well as Spieth, there are several others with strong ambitions of becoming the third consecutive American champion.

Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson, the world number four, is one of the favourites alongside Spieth, McIlroy and Day.

The 37-year-old left-hander heads to Augusta having claimed two wins as well as a second-place finish in his eight tournaments this year.

Phil Mickelson - a three-time winner and veteran of 12 other top-10 finishes at Augusta - is expected to mount another challenge, while Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed - who are all ranked inside the world's top 10 - will head down Magnolia Lane hopeful of winning their first major.

Recent Masters winners
2015: Jordan Spieth (US) 2010: Phil Mickelson (US)
2014: Bubba Watson (US) 2009: Angel Cabrera (Arg)
2013: Adam Scott (Aus) 2008: Trevor Immelman (SA)
2012: Bubba Watson (US) 2007: Mach Johnson (US)
2011: Charl Schwartzel (SA) 2006: Phil Mickelson (US)

Away from the Americans, look no further than 2016's form man - 2013 champion Adam Scott.

The 35-year-old Australian leads the PGA Tour standings - just ahead of Day - after claiming back-to-back titles last month.

Scott claimed the Honda Classic at Palm Beach and then beat Watson by one shot at the WGC Championship at Doral.

"I think Bubba is the favourite," said Scott after pipping Watson with a closing 69 at Trump National in Miami.

"Even if I won every tournament I play before the Masters, if Bubba keeps finishing second, I'd still think he's favoured. It just sets up so good there for him."

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