Wednesday 1 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Charlie Riedel/AP/Press Association Images The Masters gets underway this Thursday.
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In the Swing: Masters excitement reaches fever pitch
With the annual tournament set to begin this Thursday, Neil Cullen looks at the contenders for the trophy.

THE FIRST MAJOR of the year is finally upon us. The Masters Tournament.

Not only is this a significant moment in the golfing calendar, it also has a broader sporting significance for us in Europe.

When we get to the Masters, the Premier League is on the home stretch and the title is up for decision; the Heineken Cup has reached the knockout stages while the post-mortem is still being carried out on the Six Nations; the National Gaelic Football and Hurling leagues are down for decision and the start of the Championship is only around the corner. A tremendous time in the calendar for sport.

When it comes to the golf, though, the Masters is the culmination of all the early-season form and the first chance for the players to add their name to the one of the most prestigious rolls of honour in the game. It’s a chance to join the likes of Nicklaus, Palmer, Watson, Player, Ballesteros, Hogan, Snead.

For those already on that list, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in particular, they have the opportunity to cement their standing in the world game even further, not just among their generation, but in the annals of the game.

And this tournament in particular is set up to be one of the greats. Think about the form of the best players in the world. Woods has won his last tournament, as has Rory McIlroy, as has Luke Donald. Mickelson has notched up a W this season, as has Justin Rose, as has Hunter Mahan (twice).

All the ingredients are there, and we’re all hoping that what’s served up will be of five-star quality.

Augusta National rarely disappoints. It has been the scene of some of the greatest moments in the history of the game and happens to be one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world – certainly for those of us watching on the television.

There is a mystique about the place, an aura that the course is the real Master. On so many occasions it has been the course, as opposed to the quality of play, that has ultimately decided on whose shoulders the green jacket will rest on Sunday evening.

It’s a course that some players seem to love, while others can’t seem to get their head around it at all. Phil Mickelson, for example, is a guy who seems to just relish playing Augusta National and builds the early part of his season around peaking for the event.

On the other hand, Martin Kaymer, a man who has won a Major and at one point held the crown of world number one, has missed the cut in all four of his appearances.

(Will Martin Kaymer fare better than in previous years? - AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

With that in mind, it can be a little easier to rule out and factor in certain players when it comes to trying to pick a winner. Tiger Woods’ record at Augusta is second to none. Couple that with his recent form and it is difficult to look much further past him.

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Much the same can be said about Phil Mickelson. He has been a little quiet in recent weeks, but his win at Pebble Beach earlier in the year would certainly suggest that the foundations are there for him to play well this week if he can bring all the aspects of his game together.

Rory McIlroy has been in the best form of them all, as has been well documented with his rise to world number one. He doesn’t boast anywhere near the same record as Woods or Mickelson around Augusta, but that’s understandable given he has only played in the Masters three times. A cautionary note, however, might be that fact that he missed the cut at Augusta in 2010, a point that may be overshadowed somewhat by his final-round demise last year.

It’s quite hard to look past these three men when it comes to picking a winner, but the short odds on offer for all three aren’t particularly appealing. If you’re looking for a long odds outsider, Sang-Moon Bae could well be worth a punt at 175\1. It may be a bit much to ask for a guy playing in his first Masters, but he has a runner-up finish and two top-10s under his belt already this season, so why not take a chance at that price.

Whoever takes home the green jacket on Sunday will have earned it, of that there’s no doubt. Everyone from Baddeley to Yang will have an influence on the outcome. Putts will be missed and made, they’ll be saying their prayers around Amen Corner, Rae’s Creek could take another victim, Ike’s Pond, Eisenhower’s Tree, Magnolia Lane…

I can’t wait.

Read: Kim misses one-foot putt for major victory>

Read: Going dark: Rory gives up the Twitter as he heads for Augusta>

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