It's that time of the year again that all golf fans look forward to. The Saturday and Sunday of the Masters, as the year’s first Major reaches its conclusion, are always two of the best nights of the year.
We know what time it comes on television and when to use the red button. Many will have planned their viewing already – I’m going to shut myself in the snooker room for the weekend – and it promises to be brilliant.
This year there is even more cause to be excited about Thursday’s start of play, as it is harder to pick a winner than it has been for a decade or more. Any one of around eight players have very strong claims for the Green Jacket, and beyond them there are plenty more in with a shout.
Last year’s victor came flying out of the blocks at the start of the year, winning the Tournament of Champions in his first outing, but seems to be struggling as he returns to Augusta.
Spieth threatened to challenge at the Houston Open on Sunday with a run of four consecutive birdies only to fall away on the back nine and finish with a double bogey.
Returning to the scene of his maiden Major win could reignite him. The 22-year-old will have fantastic memories of the Masters and that can change your whole outlook.
Spieth is the defending champion so demands respect and is certainly among a bunch who could feasibly win, but his erratic performances since that last title mean I don’t fancy it to happen.
If anyone deserves to be slight favourite in such a competitive field then it’s the US PGA champion, who warmed up for the Masters with back-to-back wins that returned him to No1 in the world rankings.
Day has every attribute needed to succeed at Augusta. The course always suits players who hit it high and long, and the Australian certainly does that. He is also underrated on the greens; for all the talk of Spieth being the best putter in the world, Day is not far behind.
The four-time Major winner will not be unduly troubled by his failure to win in 2016 as he gears up for the title he wants most – the one that would make him only the sixth man to complete a career grand slam.
But Augusta has left some bruises on McIlroy, not least from that horrific back-nine collapse in 2011 when glory was in sight, and that scar tissue will be there forever.
I have no doubt, though, that Rory will don the Green Jacket at some point. I make him fractionally behind Day, and I’d love to see him do it because I think he can go on to be the best for a long time.
The only man who could legitimately argue that he is playing even better than Day at the moment is his fellow Australian, who triumphed here three years ago.
Scott has enjoyed an incredible start to the season, following up second place at the Northern Trust Open with consecutive wins at the Honda Classic and WGC – Cadillac Championship.
He has as good a game as anyone and, at 35, has a little more experience than many of the other contenders.
What has struck me is that he has made a successful transition to using a short putter. Scott looks confident every time he steps onto the green, and holing putts is key at Augusta.
The course layout at the Masters just suits some players and doesn’t suit others. Bubba, who won here in 2012 and 2014, unquestionably falls into the first category.
That tells you that Watson has to have a great chance, and the world No4 is playing well, with one win already under his belt this season, at the Northern Trust Open.
The Swede appears to over the ailments that inhibited him last season, with five top-six finishes from his last seven outings, including second at the Houston Open on Sunday.
Like Day and McIlroy, Stenson plays beautifully and is suited to Augusta, He has an obvious chance and the temperament to handle the occasion if he finds himself in the running.
THE CHASING PACK
Beyond those favourites there are plenty of others – some of them former winners – who will believe they can challenge this week.
Dustin Johnson is chief among that group. The world No8 is playing the golf of his life and is sure to be in the mix.
His best opportunity to win a Major slipped away at the US Open last year with that drastic three-putt on the last hole, but he could hardly have played better all week at Chambers Bay.
If he has a weakness it’s his short game – and specifically distance control, which can be all-important at Augusta.
Rickie Fowler is not as long as the very biggest hitters but makes up for it with his short game and putting. He has all the tools and proved he was ready to win the big events with a watershed victory at The Players Championship last year.
England’s Justin Rose, second last year, could go close again, while three-time winner Phil Mickelson also has the pedigree.
Louis Oosthuizen won’t forget that albatross at the second hole on the final round in 2012, even if he went on to lose to Bubba in a play-off, while fellow South African Charl Schwartzel, who claimed the Green Jacket 12 months earlier, is another to monitor.
To play the Masters for the first time is to realise your dreams, and the likes of England’s Andy Sullivan, Scotland’s Russell Knox and Spain’s Rafael Cabrera-Bello are in for an incredible week.
They’ll want to play the traditional Par Three Contest on Wednesday, then play a practice round, and then soon enough you find yourself at the first tee – just go and enjoy it.
I’ve mentioned Cabrera-Bello in a few recent columns and I’m a big fan of the 31-year-old. He has a very elegant swing, hits the ball a mile and high, and looks to have improved his chipping.
Spain has been waiting since 1999 – when Jose Maria Olazabal won the Masters, the last European to do so – for a Major winner. Those are big shoes to fill, but Cabrera-Bello could be the man.