THE RESURGENCE of Tiger Woods and his recent return to the No1 spot in the world rankings; his heir apparent Rory McIlroy’s struggles since switching club supplier followed by an apparent breakthrough at last week’s Texas Open; the build-up for this year’s Masters has been so perfect it’s as if it had been scripted.
Attention will be focused on whether a duel between Woods and McIlroy emerges, and the Northern Irishman does look to be rediscovering something close to the form that brought him five titles, including a second Major, last year.
His last-minute decision to enter the Texas Open showed a great attitude and paid off in spades. You can’t discount the severe struggles he endured in the first three months of 2013, but his improvement over the last fortnight is undeniable. In any case, form is only temporary while class is permanent.
If I had to put my life on one player to triumph at Augusta this week, however, it would be Woods. His last two wins – back-to-back victories at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the WGC Cadillac Championship – were very comfortable.
The 14-time Major champion rode the field in both tournaments, never letting his rivals get too close, and looked in complete control of everything: his game, the course and the distance between him and his challengers. Perhaps crucially, putting is a huge factor at Augusta, and Tiger’s is now as good as I’ve seen it in 10 years.
While it could come down to a shoot-out between the world’s top two, I think that’s improbable, and there are numerous other players who look more than capable of contending on Sunday. Whatever happens, I fancy a big-hitter to be donning the green jacket.
Three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson certainly has the pedigree and is also in good form. He already has one title under his belt this year, the Phoenix Open, and that will be a huge boost to his confidence for the year’s first Major.
Defending champion Bubba Watson has made an unremarkable start to 2013 but I could still see him challenging, while there are a number of other home hopes to watch. Brandt Snedeker putts the eyes out of the ball but has toiled with a rib problem lately, while perhaps it is time for one of the American young brigade, such as Keegan Bradley or Webb Simpson, to claim a breakthrough win.
Europe has not had a Masters winner since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999, and Justin Rose looks best-equipped of the English contingent to mount a challenge. He tied for fifth in 2007 and eighth last year, so he can definitely handle it and I’ve long tipped him or Ian Poulter to land a Major this year.
I have no doubts that Poulter is good enough for glory this week, but, like countryman Luke Donald, I’m not sure he is a long enough hitter on a course where an extra 20 or 30 yards can make all the difference. Lee Westwood’s wait for a Major continues and, now that he lives in the States and is settled, if ever there was a time for him to break that jinx this might just be it.
A South African has prevailed at Augusta twice in the last five years, and both Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 winner, and Louis Oosthuizen, denied only in a play-off 12 months ago, must be in with a shout. I’ll be particularly monitoring the former, who should benefit from a good deal less pressure now that he is not the defending champion.
Other Europeans to watch include Scotland’s Martin Laird, who arrived at Augusta on a huge high following his Texas Open triumph, Germany’s Marcel Siem, who won last month in Morocco, Swedes Henrik Stenson and Freddie Jacobson and Spain’s Sergio Garcia, who was tied fourth in 2004.
The bottom line, though, is that by Sunday evening I expect to see Tiger leading a chasing pack that includes McIlroy, Mickelson and Schwartzel.
Sam Torrance OBE is a multiple Ryder Cup-winning golfer and media commentator. Follow him on Twitter @torrancesam