On the Cover:

HK Golfer - - Contents -

Tiger Woods, who is seek­ing his fifth green jacket, will be mak­ing just his sec­ond ap­pear­ance at the Mas­ters since 2013. He may never dom­i­nate like he once did, but the 2018 ver­sion of Tiger­ma­nia roars louder than ever.

It’s April, Au­gusta Na­tional and Aza­leas await. As Mike Wil­son pre­dicts, there prom­ises to be a mas­ter­piece at the first Ma­jor of the year, with any one of the top 25 in the world in line for a fit­ting of the iconic Green Jacket. With archri­vals Phil Mick­el­son and Tiger Woods rewrit­ing his­tory, and Rory McIl­roy bang back in form, it truly is a mouth­wa­ter­ing prospect.

For some, this cor­re­spon­dent in­cluded, the Mas­ters was in dan­ger of los­ing its al­lure, its lus­tre, the star­dust it sprin­kled in abun­dance in the hey­day of the ‘Big 3,’ and Tiger in his pomp. But, it seems the good times are rolling once more for what should be a mas­ter­piece of pure the­atre on one of the great­est stages in sports.

It re­ally does say some­thing about the rein­vig­o­rat­ing na­ture of elite men’s pro­fes­sional golf that the man cur­rently wear­ing the fa­bled Green Jacket, Spain’s Ser­gio Gar­cía is, to all in­tents and pur­poses, some­thing of a rank out­sider with those wise men they call ‘Turf ac­coun­tants.’

The Spa­niard broke his Ma­jor duck at Au­gusta 12 months ago, shak­ing off the least wanted moniker in golf as ‘The best player never to win a Ma­jor’. His birdie three to Ry­der Cup team­mate Justin Rose’s bo­gey five earn­ing the Spa­niard the near US$2m win­ner’s cheque, ap­po­sitely on the birth­day of the late, lamented com­pa­triot Seve Balles­teros.

For Gar­cía, who was look­ing and sound­ing more and more like a tor­tured soul seem­ingly des­tined al­ways to be the brides­maid and never the bride, win­ning the 2017 Mas­ters was less

and less about the money. His bur­geon­ing bank ac­count is now more than US$70m – and more a mo­ment of epiphany, the mon­key even­tu­ally off the back of the man who has no fewer than 19 top-10 fin­ishes in 77 at­tempts at win­ning one of what. For ev­ery elite golfer is the only true cur­rency of their sport, a Ma­jor ti­tle.

“Def­i­nitely [a] demon­stra­tion of my char­ac­ter, and my men­tal­ity. You know, how pos­i­tive I stayed even when things weren't go­ing that well,” was his im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion fol­low­ing the some­what cheesy Green Jacket don­ning cer­e­mony in But­ler’s Cabin, few be­liev­ing him when he said, “I'm still the same guy. I'm still the same goofy guy, so that's not go­ing to change.”

“I think the prob­lem is be­cause where my head was at some­times, I did think about, am I ever go­ing to win one. I've had so many good chances and ei­ther I lost them, or some­one has done some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary to beat me, so it did cross my mind.

Now mar­ried with a new baby daugh­ter in his arms and a Green Jacket in his locker, Gar­cía looks and sounds like a man vin­di­cated, the shack­les off, the doubters - and there were many - con­signed to be­yond the out-of-bounds mark­ers. This cor­re­spon­dent in­cluded who was roundly and vo­cif­er­ously cas­ti­gated by him at the World Match Play Cham­pi­onship in his na­tive Spain for the au­dac­ity of ask­ing him to see a sports psy­chol­o­gist to over­come his demons.

Gar­cía, who seems to have taken his re­cent change of clubs from Tay­lorMade to Call­away in his stride, goes into his ti­tle de­fence in­side the top-10 of the Of­fi­cial World Golf Rank­ing. All of which makes his longish-odds not only more in­trigu­ing but all the more at­trac­tive for the pun­ters.

But the big back-story to this, the 82nd stag­ing of the sea­son-open­ing Ma­jor, must be the resur­gence of two for­mer cham­pi­ons. Both forty-some­things, Phil Mick­el­son and his archri­val over two hal­cyon decades, the fully-fit again and rein­vig­o­rated Tiger Woods. And the more re­cent re­nais­sance of Rory McIl­roy who goes into this month’s Mas­ters not only in search of a first Green Jacket but also the cov­eted ca­reer, Grand Slam.

That would en­able the Ir­ish­man to join the elite and ex­clu­sive club cur­rently com­pris­ing five mem­bers, Gene Sarazen, Ben Ho­gan, Gary Player, Jack Nick­laus, and Tiger Woods. Each of who has won all four Ma­jors, at least once.

In­ter­est­ingly, Mick­el­son would also join that gilt-edged group was he able to go one bet­ter than the half-dozen run­ners-up fin­ishes he has en­dured in his home US Open at Shin­necock Hills in June. It will be his 26th at­tempt at win­ning what, for most US pro­fes­sion­als in the jewel in their crown, much more of which in the June edi­tion of HK Golfer.

Woods is 1-up on Lefty in the Green Jacket stakes, four to three. But the prospect of the pair of them slug­ging it out through Amen Cor­ner come Sun­day af­ter­noon would, with­out ques­tion, send the TV rat­ings through the roof and into the strato­sphere. They were up a re­ported 181% as Woods went head-to-head with even­tual win­ner Paul Casey at the re­cent Valspar Cham­pi­onship.

Woods has been manag­ing his re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion with un­prece­dented care, and, a hum­bler man than ever be­fore. 12th in the Honda Clas­sic and run­ner-up to Casey in the Valspar points to a man who, for the first time in many years, jus­ti­fies his sta­tus as the sec­ond favourite to win a fifth Mas­ters ti­tle. It was a feat only ever ex­ceeded by Jack Nick­laus, the Golden Bear, go­ing win­ning his sixth Green Jacket in his 46th year back in 1986.

In­trigu­ingly, was Mick­el­son to make it a fourth Mas­ters win - and, take note of a pos­si­ble omen, he only dons the Green Jacket in even­num­bered years - at 47-years-old - five-year­sol­der than Woods - he would sur­pass Nick­laus as the old­est player ever to win a Ma­jor ti­tle.

And Lefty comes into Au­gusta on a run of fine form. Three top six fin­ished topped-off with a barn­storm­ing vic­tory in the WGC-Mex­ico Cham­pi­onship. Clear ev­i­dence of a man not only in the way of his life but be­ly­ing his years, and, at odds of 20/1, he’s well worth a punt.

The Of­fi­cial World Golf Rank­ing (OWGR) would sug­gest that Dustin John­son, world num­ber-one is the man to beat. But his track record at the Mas­ters, two top-10s in seven out­ings would in­di­cate that, as they say in golf, Au­gusta Na­tional, ‘Does not suit his eye.’ Per­haps his big-hit­ting, power­ball game lack­ing the sub­tlety to plot his way around one of the most strate­gic cour­ses in world golf.

The phrase, ‘A sledge­ham­mer to crack a nut,’ springs read­ily to mind when it comes to DJ, ar­guably lack­ing the guile, and per­haps the tem­per­a­ment to win on the big­gest stage of all.

Amer­i­can idols, Justin Thomas and Jor­dan Spi­eth, will, with­out doubt, be amongst the fans’ favourites. Thomas, sec­ond on the OWGR, is yet to record a top20 fin­ish in two ap­pear­ances at Au­gusta to date, but his time may yet to come.

Mean­while, his Ry­der Cup team­mate Spi­eth, run­ner-up twice and Mas­ters cham­pion in 2015, left one to won­der if the scars of what looked like a nailed-on ti­tle de­fence when lead­ing by five strokes head­ing into the back-nine, suf­fered one of the big­gest col­lapses in Mas­ters his­tory af­ter bo­geys at the 10th and 11th holes. Spi­eth hit two balls into the wa­ter at the par-3 12th hole, card­ing a quadru­ple-bo­gey and drop­ping him to a tie for fourth.

Mem­o­ries of Greg Nor­man’s calami­tous col­lapse around the no­to­ri­ous Amen Cor­ner in 1996 when the Great White Shark sank with­out trace. Hand­ing the Green Jacket to Nick Faldo and, de­spite three run­ners-up fin­ishes, the Aus­tralian was never to ex­pe­ri­ence the schmaltzy rit­ual in But­ler’s Cabin, whereas the 24-year-old Spi­eth has, pre­ced­ing his 2015 US Open vic­tory with a maiden Ma­jor at Au­gusta.

Justin Rose, the reign­ing Olympic cham­pion and up to fifth on the OWGR must surely learn from last year’s play­off de­feat to Gar­cía and has the game, and the tem­per­a­ment to add the Mas­ters to his 2013 US Open vic­tory. With five top-10 fin­ishes - run­ner-up twice - in 12 Au­gusta out­ings, the 37-year-old South African-born English­man will be one to watch again this year.

Those two in­her­i­tors of Ser­gio Gar­cía’s bur­den as the best play­ers never

to have won a Ma­jor, Lee West­wood and Rickie Fowler not only have that al­ba­tross cir­cling as-yet un­ful­filled ca­reers. But, take heart, if the Spa­niard could find a way to win af­ter 18 years of try­ing and at the 73rd at­tempt, then West­wood - in the same ter­ri­tory and with three top-three Mas­ters fin­ishes since 2010, any­thing is pos­si­ble.

And West­wood, un­like Fowler, is ca­reer­ing head­long out­side the top-100 on the OWGR. In the par­lance of the sport of rac­ing, he so loves, his race may run, whereas Fowler, #7 in the world, started the sea­son well with a win at the Hero World Chal­lenge and fourth in the Tour­na­ment of Cham­pi­ons be­fore his form tailed-off as the cal­en­dar year of 2018 has un­folded.

One man not hith­erto men­tioned in dis­patches to date is Rory McIl­roy, mem­o­ries of his mo­men­tous melt­down at Au­gusta in 2011 still redo­lent sev­enyears-on. Just one top-25 fin­ish on the PGA TOUR to date this year hardly sug­gested the ca­reer grand slam would a re­al­is­tic op­tion for the North­ern Ir­ish­man - once the anointed heir-ap­par­ent to Tiger Woods - whose game had gone se­ri­ously off the boil of late.

But wait a mo­ment; Rory roared right back to form with a barn­storm­ing vic­tory in the pres­ti­gious Arnold Palmer In­vi­ta­tional at Bay Hill last month. Thanks in large part to a fi­nal round 64, cov­er­ing the fi­nal 13 holes in eigh­tun­der-par, play­ing what he later de­scribed as, ‘flaw­less golf.” In the heat of bat­tle with US favourite Bryson DeCham­beau, Justin Rose, Hen­rik Sten­son and, again, a rein­vig­o­rated Tiger Woods were hot on his heels. But a fi­nal round 64, eight-un­der-par giv­ing him a three-shot mar­gin of vic­tory and up to sev­enth on an OWG Rhe once threat­ened to dom­i­nate - 95-weeks at #1 - in what ap­peared to be the post-Woods era.

For his part, Woods, fully fit again, it seems in both body and mind is just out­side the top-100, hav­ing been down amongst the dead men and head­ing to­wards the exit door of the top1,000, quite a come­back.

But does his Arnold Palmer vic­tory, im­pres­sive though it was, make McIl­roy an au­then­tic can­di­date for a maiden Mas­ters ti­tle?

McIl­roy needs - more than wants - a Mas­ters ti­tle, and he needs it badly. First, to se­cure his legacy as one of the greats of the game, rather than one of the great enig­mas, but also to atone for and lay the ghost of one of the most cat­a­clysmic, calami­tous, cat­a­strophic and pub­licly hu­mil­i­at­ing melt­downs in world golf at Au­gusta seven - years, seven - years ago.

With a four-stroke cush­ion go­ing into the fi­nal day at Au­gusta Na­tional in 2011, his un­rav­el­ling was both painful and strangely com­pelling to watch as South African Charl Schwartzel found him­self the un­likely wearer of a Green Jacket made-to-mea­sure for the Ir­ish­man.

In re­flec­tive mood re­cently, the four­time Ma­jor win­ner (and his last, the Open Cham­pi­onship and USPGA both four years ago now) claimed that fateful Sun­day, the 10th of April 2011 had been, "the most im­por­tant day of [my] ca­reer," adding, "I learned so much about my­self and what I needed to do the next time I got into that po­si­tion."

But there are those who would sug­gest that a se­ries of man­age­rial dis­putes and per­sonal mishaps and mis­judge­ments have re­vealed a chink in the pre­vi­ously seem­ingly men­tal ar­mour.

Th­ese in­cluded a be­lat­edly abortive plan to marry the re­cently-crowned Aus­tralian Open ten­nis cham­pion Caro­line Woz­ni­acki; over­sleep­ing and al­most miss­ing his tee-time at the ‘Mir­a­cle of Me­d­i­nah’ Ry­der Cup of 2012; de­clin­ing the op­por­tu­nity to play at the Rio Olympics and a hap­less and ill-judged an­kle in­jury play­ing foot­ball on the eve of the 2015 Open Cham­pi­onship - he hasn’t won a tour­na­ment any­where in the world since the PGA TOUR Cham­pi­onship in Septem­ber 2016 - de­railed what had promised to be a stellar ca­reer of the Woods/Mick­el­son/Nick­laus di­men­sion.

And, per­haps, therein lies the rub, fame hang­ing-out with boy-band mem­bers, NBA su­per­stars and Premier League foot­ballers - and fortune - a 10-year US$200 mil­lion con­tract ex­ten­sion with Nike for ap­parel only, plus a 10-year $100 mil­lion equip­ment deal with Tay­lorMade to use their clubs, ball and bag. Not to men­tion mar­riage to PGA TOUR staffer Erica Stoll, the trade­mark swag­ger and burn­ing am­bi­tion may just have been blunted.

But, if any­one of the near-100-man field at Au­gusta this month not only cov­ets but craves, a Green Jacket, it is the Ir­ish­man. Other­wise very good, if not great play­ers like Danny Willett (2016), Bubba Wat­son (twice in 2012 and 2014), Trevor Im­mel­man (2008), Mike Weir (2003) and the afore­men­tioned Schwartzel will have had the hon­our not only of wear­ing a Green Jacket in per­pe­tu­ity but also set­ting the menu for the pre-Mas­ters Cham­pion’s Din­ner.

The Mas­ters has, over the years, thrown-up some un­likely and un­her­alded win­ners, like Larry Mize in 1987, Mark O’Meara in 1998, Án­gel Cabr­era in 2009 and Willett two years ago. So, given a fair wind, a good draw and some large slices of luck, any­one in it can win it.

And, like stick­ing a pin whilst blind­folded in the start list, the best of the rest could be the cur­rently in-form Casey, with the fresh smell of Valspar vic­tory in his nos­trils. 2016 Open Cham­pi­onship win­ner Hen­rik Sten­son, whose Au­gusta record to date is lam­en­ta­ble. US-based Spa­niard John Rahm, tied for 27th on de­but last year and Ja­son Day, al­most any­thing is pos­si­ble.

How­ever, with Lefty, Tiger, Gar­cía and Rose, Spi­eth and Thomas, John­son and Bubba, Mat­suyama and Ki­radech - and now pos­si­bly Rory - all in con­tention come late af­ter­noon US East­ern Time come Sun­day 8th April, it would make for com­pul­sive, com­pelling and clam­orous view­ing. It would also give men’s pro­fes­sional golf the shot in the arm it so badly needs. And we’ll all, for sure, have Geor­gia on our minds.

But, with a course like Au­gusta Na­tional, four-times around Amen Cor­ner, many of the best play­ers in world golf in the field and the world watch­ing, pick­ing the win­ner of the Green Jacket this year is, for pre­dict­ing pun­dits, a cross be­tween play­ing Rus­sian Roulette, a Me­dieval Joust and a Franco-Span­ish duel to the death.

May the best man win.

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