2018 Masters Preview: Who will shine at Augusta?

It’s now just a matter of weeks until the start of the 2018 Masters and the thrills of Augusta National Golf Club start all over again.

Imagine where you’ll be sitting, how you’ll be watching, what you’ll be doing. This year’s tournament is already shaping up to be one of the best in recent years, and here’s why.

Of course, everyone will have their ideal leaderboard. Maybe it’s Rory McIlroy sitting on top come the evening of 8th April, to complete a career grand slam. Or perhaps Dustin Johnson, who of course, missed out on the tournament last year due to a back injury, which paved the way for Sergio Garcia’s long-awaited first major title.

The beauty of the Masters is that coming down the back-nine on the final round, no matter what the leaderboard looks like, you can never predict who the winner will be. It’s the beauty and challenge of Augusta that every golf fan loves.

Our excitement for the first major of the year is definitely justified by what we’ve seen so far this year.

Jon Rahm’s sixth gear, Justin Thomas’ ridiculous theatrics, Bubba Watson hitting dizzying shots all over southern California, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson hitting the accelerator, Tommy Fleetwood, ‘Mr Consistent’ this year.

With all the players firing as they are, we could be in for complete and total euphoria in a couple of week’s time.

And we haven’t even mentioned Tiger Woods or Jordan Spieth yet!

Think of last year’s incredible finale when we had two European stars battle it out in one of the most thrilling final rounds the tournament has ever seen.

Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia created a complete thrill of a back-nine for the patrons with shots flying in thick and fast. None quite so spectacular as Sergio’s incredible approach to the flag at the Par 5 15th.

Both players will definitely be in contention this year, maybe not as favourites, as it’s so hard to win the Masters in consecutive years, or even finish in the top 10 consecutively.

Could this be the best Masters yet?

We have longed for the heads of generations – notably Woods and McIlroy – to clash for such a long time, this might finally be the year we see it.

Woods has defied everyone through countless injury setbacks, to now find himself in his best form for the last five years.

A second-place finish at the Valspar Championship a few weeks ago, followed by a strong finish at Bay Hill (won by McIlroy) means both players are hitting form at just the right time.

Could this be the year Tiger equals the great Jack Nicklaus’ record five green jackets? Or will Rory win his first?

One of the dirty secrets of the Masters in recent years is that we have rarely seen true heavyweight bouts for the jacket.

There has been no Mickelson-Henrik Stenson duel at Royal Troon. There has been no Johnson-Spieth set to at Chambers Bay. There has been no Mickelson-McIlroy-Rickie Fowler battle at Valhalla.

The rivalries we want at Augusta

Yes, last year was incredible (and will be historically underrated), but before that you have to do a little scavenging to find another great sword fight at Augusta National.

Spieth vs. Bubba Watson in 2014 was terrific, and Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera in 2013 was strong, but you probably have to go all the way back to 2004 to find a true icon-on-icon battle.

Mickelson shot 31 on the back nine that year to clip Ernie Els by one. The climax of that tournament is now a logo on Mickelson’s belt buckle.

This year, though, well this years has the makings of something tremendous. We get all the trappings of a normal major with two key ingredients that many Masters (especially recently) have lacked.

Elder statesmen Mickelson and Woods trying to rekindle something special. Two all-timers trying to remember what it feels like to have all the Masters you could possibly want in front of you and the possibility that you could win them all still in play.

There is nothing in all of sports as dramatic or compelling as that narrative.

Their presence at Augusta, when in good form, exponentially raises the bar on what we could see. The possibilities are endless.

What if we get a Mickelson-McIlroy redux? A repeat of the 2014 PGA Championship.

What if Dustin Johnson starts clicking on Sunday afternoon with those meteoric drives, with Thomas and Rahm keeping pace?

What if – pausing to pray to the golfing gods – Woods and Spieth go to a playoff?

What if Fowler and McIlroy are in the pairing in front of them? What if Sergio Garcia is in a position to repeat?

Tremendous storylines

The possibilities are endless and I’m not sure there’s ever been more real momentum heading into a Masters in recent memory.

It’s no secret that the form of the world’s top 20, right now, leads us to the believe that more tremendous storylines will be written this April.

But even if we get the flip side of that is that, if we don’t get something truly special and an outsider wins, like the ever-present Charley Hoffman or Marc Leishman, it’s all part of the joys of Augusta that we’ve grown to love over the years.

Maybe it will never play out like we want, either. Maybe Francesco Molinari will win the Masters, and we will all move on with our lives. But maybe, for one week Tiger and Phil and Spieth and Rory and Rahm and Fowler and Johnson and Garcia will all be feeling it.

Maybe we’ll get the greatest Masters of all-time…

Feature image of Augusta National courtesy of Dan Perry via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)