Fans in frenzy for Masters like no other

Once the questions to Phil Mickelson about his long-sleeve, business attire golf shirt and practice-round pairing with Tiger Woods were handled on Tuesday, the three-time Masters champion, making his 23rd start in the season’s first major, was asked whether this was the most anticipated Masters — maybe ever.

Fans in frenzy for Masters like no other

“I agree,” Mickelson said with a smile.

Pressed for more details, Mickelson continued, saying, “I think there’s a lot of the top quality players, young and old, are playing some of their best golf and I think that’s going to lead to one of the most exciting Masters in years.”

Mickelson’s words lacked little hyperbole. Since the calendar flipped to 2018, the winner’s list this season include the likes of World No. 1 Dustin Johnson (Sentry Tournament of Champions), No. 2 Justin Thomas (Honda Classic), No. 3 Jon Rahm (CareerBuilder Challenge) as well as former major champions Bubba Watson (twice at the Genesis Open and WGC Dell Match Play); Jason Day (Farmers Insurance Open); Mickelson (WGC Mexico Championship; and Rory McIlroy (Arnold Palmer Invitational).

Perhaps never before have so many of the games best players and most popular stars entered the Masters in peak form.

“It’s difficult to peak,” said Day, World No. 11.

It’s difficult to peak your body, difficult to peak your mind, difficult to peak you game. But once you get all those three in order, that’s when you start to perform really great.

About the only star that hasn’t been firing on all cylinders is Jordan Spieth, the 2015 champion and reigning champion Golfer of the Year, who may have found something in Houston last week, where he finished tied for third.

The buzz surrounding the 82nd Masters is ratcheted up to another level thanks to the return of Tiger Woods, who has missed the Masters the last two years and eight consecutive majors due to injury.

With finishes in the top 12 in his last three starts, including a tie for second at the Valspar Championship, Woods, 42, has proven that this latest comeback bid, after missing more than 10 months following his fourth back surgery that fused a vertebrae, is for real. And so the pursuit of his 15th major championship title resumes.

McIlroy was among the most vocal pros to assert that this comeback had the potential to be different than the last.

“It doesn’t feel like five years ago that he won five tournaments and was Player of the Year,” McIlroy said in February. "He remembers how to do this and his body’s allowing him to do this, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll make a little bit of noise this year.”

Woods whipped fans throughout the state of Florida into a frenzy with his power and precision. Now, Tiger roars have returned to Augusta National — and it is only the practice rounds.

"As soon as Tiger walked in everybody stood up and started clapping. It doesn’t happen for anybody else,” Rahm said. “It’s when someone like Tiger’s back in the game and is back at Augusta, it’s special.”

American golf commentator Roger Maltbie summed up the lovefest over Woods’s return.

“There was always the Tiger mania, the electricity, the buzz that no one else could generate,” Maltbie said. “But there is a level of adoration and love out there now. They truly miss this guy. It is more like an Arnold Palmer crowd if you know what I’m saying. It is a change in the atmosphere, but still plenty of excitement. If you are a golfer, it is fun to watch.”

It is too early to say if the Woods mystique and aura still exist, but at least one major champion suggests that it will still be a factor if Woods, who hasn’t slipped on a green jacket since 2005, is in contention on Sunday.

“There’s one guy puckering a little bit more than the next guy, and it’s not going to be Tiger Woods,” said two-time US Open champion Curtis Strange.

A victory for Woods on Sunday would go down as one of the greatest comebacks in all of sports. But McIlroy completing the career Grand Slam and becoming just the sixth player to do so also has the potential to make this year’s Masters an instant classic.

Given that there is no known footage of Gene Sarazen, the only player to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National, winning in 1935, CBS Sports commentator Jim Nantz said that if McIlroy wins this tournament it would rank among the top-5 all-time Masters.

“It might not be as big as the story of Tiger coming back to win. That would trump all,” Nantz said. “But this would be 1-A, and it can happen.”

McIlroy, for one, has benefited from the Woods hysteria. He may not be floating under the radar, but Woods has stolen some of the spotlight from the coverage that has followed McIlroy since his Grand Slam bid first reached a frenzy in 2015, following his back-to-back majors at the 2014 Open and PGA Championships.

“I felt that anticipation and that hype and I nearly built it up in my head a little bit too much,” McIlroy said.

All the attention directed at Woods and Mickelson and the young guns may offer the perfect scenario for McIlroy to claim the one prize he so desperately covets.

The problem with so many potentially seductive storylines surrounding the Masters is it can’t possibly live up to the hype, can it? In that case, mark down Kyle Stanley as your champion.

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