Masters 2018: Five storylines to watch as we head into the pre-Augusta stretch run
Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson are all in the conversation when it comes to intrigue
The 2018 Masters starts in 50 days. How about that? It always feels so far away in July and September and November, and then the last few months fly by faster than you can say "Jack is definitely still longer off the tee than Gary, but who's counting besides Gary."
The first 45 days of the year have brought us pretty much everything. A pair of great European Tour events, the No. 1 player in the world galloping in Hawaii, multiple playoffs, the Jason Day Redemption Tour, mini struggles from Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson's revival and, of course, Tiger Woods.
With less than two months to go before the ceremonial tee shots and 82nd Masters, here are five fun storylines I'll be following as the first major of the season comes into focus.
1. How dominant can Dustin Johnson be? I've noted this in a variety of other places, but D.J. can win eight times this year. Will he? Probably not, but he can. One of the more enigmatic talents in the game has suddenly become the most consistent entity on the PGA Tour. Johnson recently joined Rory McIlroy, Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and Tiger Woods as one of only five golfers to maintain the No. 1 ranking in the world for a full year.
He has been beaten by two golfers in the last three tournaments. He's No. 1 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained off the tee, birdie average, scoring average and second in strokes gained overall. None of this feels extraordinary, either. He just plods along with that inimitable swing and underrated putting strokes, and lifts trophies all over the world. He'll have to prove it at Augusta, where he's never legitimately contended, but he should roll down Magnolia Lane with nothing but freeway in front of him and six gears to work through in his hands.
2. The slam awaits: Rory McIlroy is almost always a storyline leading up to the Masters because he has the most to gain (the career Grand Slam) with a win at Augusta National. He looked fabulous at the Abu Dhabi Championship and Dubai Desert Classic but not so much at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where he missed the cut last week.
McIlroy (and everyone else) has a D.J.-shaped problem right now, but it appears that McIlroy has found the goods to at least roll with Johnson on some level. Few can spar with the world No. 1 when he's really throttling, but McIlroy is certainly one who can. If can reel in a win or two over the next seven weeks (he'll have several opportunities), the hype is going to be resounding come the beginning of April.
3. The schedule is about to get a little odd: After the Genesis Open this week and Honda Classic next week, the WGC-Mexico Championship is up after that. Great, right? Fantastic field, no cut and last year was lit. Yes, all of those things are true, but because of scheduling, McIlroy and Day have already decided to not play. Spieth is on the fence. Woods won't qualify. You're suddenly looking at an event that's supposed to be one of the top 10 in the world that might not have as good of a top-end field as this week's at Riviera.
Following Mexico, the PGA Tour goes to the Valspar Championship, Arnold Palmer Invitational, WGC-Dell Match Play and Houston Open before Augusta. That will be a fairly normal lead-in to the first major, although the match play is always a wild card. You could theoretically see players skip the first two WGCs of 2018 because of Masters prep and because these events are so closely bunched together.
4. European Invasion: Following their start in the Middle East, Tommy Fleetwood and Thomas Pieters have hooked up with the PGA Tour in Los Angeles this week for the Genesis Open. Sergio Garcia will likely be on his way shortly. Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge. Alex Noren nearly won the Farmers Insurance Open. Justin Rose has finished outside the top 10 once in his last 12 events. Branden Grace leads the PGA Tour in strokes gained. This year's group of top Euro players is even more fascinating than normal with young guys like Matt Fitzpatrick and Tyrrell Hatton in the mix. I'm excited to watch the amalgamation of the two tours at the WGCs and Masters after a primarily U.S.-themed first few months. Related: Is it time for the Ryder Cup yet?
5. Phil and Tiger on Sunday: I was thinking about this as Mickelson walked up the 18th hole at Pebble Beach on Sunday for his T2 finish. What if (what if?!) Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson make up the final pairing on Sunday at Augusta National? It sounds crazy, but it's really not. The last time they both played the event was in 2015. Mickelson was in the penultimate pairing with Justin Rose, and Tiger was in the pairing just in front of them with Rory McIlroy. Tiger hadn't played in a few months, and he still sort of wriggled his way into the heart of the event.
Could Woods, with his repaired back, and Mickelson,, make that happen? If they could somehow pull it off, it would make for the best story of the entire calendar year short of Anthony Kim appearing like a mist in Paris and going 5-0-0 to lead the U.S. to the 2018 Ryder Cup.
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