AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The Latest on the Masters (all times local):
Phil Mickelson agrees with anyone who believes this is the most anticipated Masters in years or decades, maybe even ever.
And not just because of Tiger Woods’ return.
Mickelson, who played a rare practice round with Woods on Tuesday, says “there’s a lot of players, a lot of the top quality players, young and old, are playing some of their best golf. I think that’s going to lead to one of the most exciting Masters in years.”
Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Justin Rose, Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Woods and Mickelson are among the favorites. Johnson, Thomas, McIlroy, Rahm, Rose, Watson, Day and Mickelson already have won this season.
And Woods looks capable of joining them.
Even Lefty is cheering for his longtime rival.
Mickelson says “nobody respects and appreciates” what Woods has done for the game more than he does “because nobody’s benefited from what he’s done for the game of golf more than I have.”
Rory McIlroy knows how significant this Masters could be in terms of golf history.
Once again, he’s got a shot at the career Grand Slam.
The Masters remains the only major championship to elude McIlroy, who has won the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship. Only five players have captured all four of the modern major championships, making it one of golf’s most exclusive clubs.
McIlroy says he needs to “relish the opportunity that’s been put in front” of him, and then “go out and grab it.”
Amazingly enough, McIlroy nearly won his first major at Augusta National in 2011. He led after each of the first three rounds and seemed to be cruising toward the green jacket, only to collapse on the back nine Sunday.
McIlroy says that experience made him “a better golfer, a better person.” Without the lessons learned that day, he doubts that he would’ve had so much success.
While he hasn’t come as close to winning as he did seven years ago, McIlroy has always played well at Augusta National, finishing in the top 10 each of the last four years.
He comes into this year’s event off a win at Bay Hill, giving him plenty of confidence that this can finally be the year he finally breaks through.
Shubhankar Sharma got his first glimpse of childhood hero Tiger Woods at the Masters on Tuesday.
Well, sort of.
“I saw his bag outside the clubhouse with his caddie,” Sharma said with a smile.
The 21-year-old golfer from India, a rising star on the European Tour, is making his Masters debut and has his sights set on meeting Woods.
He first saw him at the Delhi Golf Club in 2014. Sharma, his father and several friends were among the thousands crammed throughout the tight course to watch Woods play an exhibition round.
“We were pretty much running from one green to another,” he said. “It was a great thing. Tiger has been a big inspiration not only to me but to a lot of kids back home, so it was just great to watch him play in person and got to learn a lot.”
Sharma expects to top that feeling this week at Augusta National. And it starts with meeting Woods.
“Tiger has a different aura about him and just the player that he is and how he dominated the world of golf is something,” he said. “It definitely will be a fanboy moment for me when I go and say hi to him.”
Tiger Wood calls his comeback “a miracle.”
Woods is playing the Masters for the first time since 2015, after going through spinal fusion surgery to relieve chronic back pain.
The four-time Augusta champion says he doesn’t “know anybody who had lower back fusion and can swing the club as fast as I can swing it.”
After myriad health problems, Woods seems to have his game in order heading into the first major of the year. He’s listed as one of the co-favorites, even though the last of his 14 major titles came nearly a decade ago at the U.S. Open.
Woods last won the Masters in 2005. He couldn’t play the last two years because of back issues, which he describes as “very, very difficult.” He watched as much of the tournament as he could on television, but adds that “it’s even more fun playing.”
Woods like his chance this week. In his words, “This is a tournament where it really helps to have experience” and he has “an understanding of how to play this particular golf course.”
Tiger Woods will tee off at 10:42 a.m. Thursday in the first round of the Masters. Woods will be paired with Marc Leishman and Tommy Fleetwood.
Defending champion Sergio Garcia, Justin Thomas and amateur Doc Redman will be in the group behind Woods. Bubba Watson, Henrik Stenson and Jason Day will tee off behind them, creating a star-studded stretch of golf at the year’s first major.
Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar will tee off in the afternoon, at 1:27 p.m.
Rory McIlroy, who is going for the career Grand Slam, tees off at 1:38 p.m., followed by 2015 Masters champion Jordan Spieth. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is in the final group, which tees off at 2 p.m. Johnson had to drop out of the tournament last year after injuring himself in a fall.
The tournament will begin at 8:15 a.m. with ceremonial tee shots from Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
Lin Yuxin and Joaquin Niemann hope their appearance at Augusta National will help golf become more popular in their home countries.
Lin earned his spot at the Masters by capturing the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship last October, making him one of two players from China in the field. Niemann won the Latin American Amateur title in January in his native Chile.
“The game in China is just getting bigger and bigger,” the 17-year-old Lin said. “I can see a lot of young kids playing, starting to play golf when they are like 5 or 6. … I can see a bunch of kids on the range every day at practice and, yeah, the game in China is just getting really popular. Everyone seems to enjoy it and they love it.”
The 19-year-old Niemann said the sport still has some catching up to do in Chile.
“But there’s still a lot of people that play golf that love the Masters,” he added. “When I was a child, it was a dream to be here. When I was like 4 or 5 years old, I was watching the Masters on TV. So it feels nice to be here.”
Justin Thomas no longer gets questions about when he’s going to capture his first major title.
He took care of that last year at the PGA Championship, which made his news conference Tuesday at Augusta National a lot more pleasant.
“Not getting questions on a day like today: When do you feel like you’re going to get your first major? Or, do you feel like you’re one of the best players without a major?” Thomas said. “I was glad to get that over with as quick as I could.”
Thomas is coming off an amazing season that included five victories in all, as well as a FedEx Cup championship. He’s off to another stellar start in 2018 with a pair of wins.
That makes Thomas one of the players to beat at the first major of the season.
“When I get in those scenarios or when I have a chance to win a big tournament, or any tournament, I’m able to look back at the PGA Championship and just remember the things that I went through the feelings I felt, the emotions that I had, and just try to kind of learn from that and use it to my advantage,” he said.
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