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Monday 25 June 2018

Miracle man Tiger back at top table

Woods returns to scene of greatest triumph

Tiger Woods of the U.S. walks onto the 13th green during the second day of practice for the 2018 Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club
Tiger Woods of the U.S. walks onto the 13th green during the second day of practice for the 2018 Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club

Describing the 82nd Masters as the most eagerly anticipated in tournament history overlooks the events of 17 years ago when golfing history would be made at Augusta National.

But there is no denying the common denominator between the two has added a palpable extra dimension to the build-up to the year's first major championship which has rarely been seen in recent times.

Back in 2001, Tiger Woods was attempting to become the first player to hold all four major titles at the same time following victories in the US Open, Open Championship and US PGA the previous year.

It was a phenomenal feat Woods would achieve in style, with a 16-under-par total - the fourth best in Masters history at the time - giving him a two-shot victory over David Duval and completing what was dubbed the "Tiger Slam".

Seventeen years on, Woods returns to Augusta as a self-proclaimed "walking miracle" following spinal fusion surgery last April, shortly after he reportedly told Jack Nicklaus "I'm done" after struggling to sit through the Champions Dinner due to the pain from his back shooting down his leg.

The 42-year-old's form on the PGA Tour this season has made him a genuine contender for a fifth Masters victory and a first major title since 2008, prompting suggestions that such a result would be the greatest sporting comeback of all time.

Woods himself introduced a welcome sense of perspective when he highlighted the story of Ben Hogan, who survived a near-fatal car crash in 1949 and went on to win all three of the majors he played in 1953, including his sole appearance in the Open Championship, which clashed with the US PGA.

But whether Sergio Garcia slips the famous green jacket onto Woods' shoulders or anyone else's, all the signs point to a classic contest which elicits the final-round roars which reverberate around the course on Sunday.

Three-time champion Phil Mickelson is five years older than Woods and until recently was also without a victory since 2013, but beating Justin Thomas in a play-off for the WGC-Mexico Championship makes the left-hander a genuine candidate to surpass Nicklaus as the oldest Masters winner.

Drought

Rory McIlroy's own winning drought was only 18 months but the manner in which it ended, with a final round of 64 to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational, catapulted the Northern Irishman back to the top of the betting market.

McIlroy's first three attempts to become the sixth player to complete the career grand slam have resulted in finishes of fourth, 10th and seventh, although it is noticeable that his best chance to win also remains his worst memory of Augusta, namely squandering a four-shot lead in 2011 with a final-round collapse.

World number one Dustin Johnson was a hot favourite 12 months ago on the back of three straight wins, only to injure his back in a fall at his rental home and withdraw just minutes before his first-round tee time.

And the former US Open champion could surrender top spot in the rankings to Thomas if the US PGA champion makes it successive major victories.

With so many other storylines around this week, including a resurgent Bubba Watson seeking a third green jacket, Garcia has been somewhat overlooked as he tries to emulate Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Woods as the only back-to-back Masters champions, with the birth of his first child - a daughter named Azalea after Augusta's 13th hole - a welcome distraction.

"This is my first time defending a major and a green jacket, so it's new to me," Garcia said.

"But no matter what, this week is going to be amazing. And the most beautiful thing about it is that I get to play the Masters until I can't walk. So that's pretty cool."

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