Look beyond the revived Tiger Woods for a homegrown Masters champion



The four-times winner is in his best form for years after back surgery but there are plenty of other Americans with a chance

Jordan Spieth receives the Green Jacket in 2015, from the previous year’s winner Bubba Watson. Photograph: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

The US Masters has never been a more international affair than in recent years. When the season’s first major championship tees off on Thursday morning amid the flowering dogwoods and blooming azaleas at Augusta National Golf Club it will mark the 12th straight year the Americans in the field will be outnumbered by players from outside the country – with six of the last 10 winners hailing from foreign soil.

A global contingent including Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, England’s Justin Rose, Australia’s Jason Day and the defending champion, Sergio Garcia of Spain, are the prime contenders to keep the Green Jacket off a homegrown player’s back for a third straight year, which would represent the lengthiest American drought at Augusta in nearly three decades, when Scotland’s Sandy Lyle (1988) and Ian Woosnam of Wales (1991) sandwiched Nick Faldo’s decade-bridging double.

But there are no shortage of American contenders who appear to be peaking entering the Masters – and the roster goes far deeper than the resurgent Tiger Woods, whose three top-12 finishes this year were enough to make him the betting favourite on the Vegas strip.

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There is Dustin Johnson, who entered last year’s Masters as an overwhelming favourite on ranking (No1 in the world) and form (three straight wins) before he was forced to withdraw on the eve of the tournament after doing his back in a slip down the stairs of his rental home near the club. He is still the world No1 even as the wins have come with less frequency and an improving record in his two most recent starts at Augusta (tied 4th in 2016 and 6th in 2015) demonstrate an improved grasp of the course’s unique challenges, though he never seriously contended on the Sunday in either of them.

Then there is Jordan Spieth, the 24-year-old wunderkind who won the first of his three majors with an epochal performance at Augusta three years ago, tying Woods’ 72-hole record while becoming the only player ever to reach 19 under par at any point of a Masters. He enters in patchy form, coming off a missed cut at the Valspar Championship with no recent wins since last year’s Open at Royal Birkdale and a short game in open rebellion, leaving the tour’s chattering class to posit whether the first extended slump of the recently-engaged star’s career might be attributed to wedding planning. (The horror!) That said, the course at Augusta is tailor-made for Spieth’s strengths and the proof is in the form sheet: finishes of second, first, second and 11th in four career attempts.

Justin Thomas, no longer best known as Spieth’s sidekick and closest friend on the tour, has been the world’s hottest player throughout a sharp ascent to world No2 that has included six titles in the last 15 months, none bigger than his first major win at last year’s US PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. He is poised to usurp Johnson on top of the world rankings, but what could be better than the melodramatic touch of doing it with a first-time win at Augusta?

Phil Mickelson celebrates winning at Augusta in 2004. Photograph: Dave Martin/AP

Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson are a pair of in-form contenders with multiple Green Jackets who might not rate among the first tier of favourites but whom no one would be surprised to see among Sunday’s final pairings.

Watson, the two-time Masters champion, is the type of left-handed big hitter that Augusta would appear to favour. After a lacklustre 2017 campaign in which he failed to register a top-10 finish while his ranking dropped to No117 in the world Watson’s odds to win the Masters have shortened dramatically since his victories at Riviera and last week’s World Match Play.

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As for Mickelson, the three-time champion at Augusta could, at 47, unseat Jack Nicklaus as the oldest champion. It is an outcome that might strain credulity after a season where he failed to break 70 in a round at any of the four majors but the 47-year-old has shown a flicker of his peak form with three straight top-six finishes leading up to a win at this month’s WGC Mexico Championship, which ended a five-year title drought that stretched back to his Open triumph at Muirfield in 2013.

Ryder Cup enthusiasts will no doubt have an eye on Patrick Reed, the match-play savant who had never come in better than 12th in 15 previous major starts before a runner-up finish at Quail Hollow last year. The 27-year-old has struggled in four previous starts at Augusta and gone 20 months without a tour win but three straight top-10 finishes make him a dangerous floater.

And there is Rickie Fowler, the prodigious talent who would no doubt like to break his major championship duck before his 30th birthday later this year. He has finished in the top five at five majors since 2011, including all four during the 2014 campaign, and twice entered the final round at the Masters within touching distance of the lead only to fall flat on Sunday: a 73 in 2014 and a 76 last year. Seven years after taking heat for wearing his hat backwards during a press conference in his Augusta debut could now finally be the time for the self-taught southern Californian?

America’s most tradition-steeped tournament is richer with a fit Tiger in the hunt and the four-time Augusta champion’s flashes of world-beating form have been more than enough to stoke interest among casual observers as the tournament draws near. But Woods is simply one of many reasons this year’s star-laden field – the smallest in 21 years with no more than 87 players expected to play – augurs a Masters to remember.