THE Masters, the first Major championship of the season, is merely a week-and-a-half away and the world of golf has turned its attention to what should be another enthralling tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, US.
World number one Dustin Johnson and some of his contemporaries in the top-10 will go to the event at Augusta from April 6-9 as the key players to watch. Indeed, there is every likelihood that the winner will emerge from this lot, which includes Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama, Henrik Stenson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Adam Scott, Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia.
It would be folly too, to write off this early the chances of past winners Phil Mickelson, Charl Schwartzel, Bubba Watson, Adam Scott and Zach Johnson.
Without attempting to take anything away from his victory last season, it would be a mammoth achievement if England’s Danny Willett secures another Masters Green Jacket in a fortnight’s time and a second Major title overall.
Number nine in the world Fowler and No. 10 Garcia will start among the best supported at Augusta. Both have significant victories already this term – the American claimed the Honda Classic with a four-stroke winning margin at the end of February, while the Spaniard won the European Tour’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic by three shots last month.
Both players are immensely popular across the globe and both are seeking a first Major crown.
Victory at the Masters for either would be roundly applauded and no less than either deserves.
Of the two though, one gets the impression that Garcia could be the first to break that duck.
Yet again, in both instances, they’ll have to put together a week of near flawless golf given the extremely high levels at which the game is played these days – with so much quality out there – and also maintain an unwavering nerve in the face of formidable competition and a course that can be as merciless as they come.
If there was a dark horse in the field, one might be compelled to turn to South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen.
The 2010 British Open champion hasn’t won one of the majors since but has come agonizingly close on a couple of occasions.
In the 2012 Masters he lost in a playoff to Bubba Watson. And then two years ago he was on the threshold of a second Major title, only to come up short and tie for second place at the US Open.
A month or so later he succumbed to defeat in another playoff, this time to Zach Johnson at the British Open.
So, while he hasn’t done anything exceptional to suggest that he is one of the form players heading into the Masters next week, Oosthuizen does have the game to mix it with the best.
If the Mossel Bay-born star can get off to a good start and keep it together going into the fourth and final day, there is nothing to dictate that he won’t go all the way this time, at a event that seems to bring out the best of him.
Last year he finished tied for 15th at Augusta, and he’ll be quietly confident of nailing down a top-10 spot, with an eye firmly fixed on the Green Jacket itself.
Mickelson, another of the leading players with massive global appeal, might have slipped to 18th in the world rankings, but his name has got to be thrown into the hat from the start.
The five-time Major winner was involved in that memorable slugging match over the final 18 holes with eventual champion Henrik Stenson at the British Open last season. And while he has not been in the winner’s circle since his 2013 Open triumph, he cannot be counted out before the first ball is teed off.
Mickelson has already got three Green Jackets and how he would dearly love to make that four and join Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods with the same number, and track the all-time leader Jack Nicklaus who won it six times.
Among a handful of others who will enjoy good patronage and hope to secure a breakthrough win at the Masters will be England’s Lee Westwood and Paul Casey.
Westwood has finished second and tied for second, and boasts four other top-10s at Augusta, including a tie for third.
Casey has had four top-10s at the Masters, highlighted by a tie for fourth last year.
These players and handful of others will be keen to upstage the favourites at Augusta and there’s no saying that one of them will not do it. And it is this that makes for an interesting wait as the Masters approaches – not quick enough for some though.