Colin Montgomerie hit the nail on the head with his summary of the 81st Masters by declaring: “I am looking forward to it as a golf fan first and foremost this year.”
The season’s opening major is always eagerly-anticipated, especially as it seems an eternity since Jimmy Walker won the last one – the USPGA.
There’s even more of a buzz, though, heading into this year’s Green Jacket contest due to the fact it will provide answers to so ma y intriguing questions.
Can Jordan Spieth overcome his demons from last year, when he missed out on back-to-back wins after a 12th-hole nightmare in the final round?
Will Dustin Johnson continue his hot streak to become the first player to win here as world No.1 since Tiger Woods in 2002?
Can Rory McIlroy make it third-time lucky in his bid to join golfing greats Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods in the career Grand Slam club?
Is this the year when new Spanish star Jon Rahm can become the event’s first-time winner since Fuzzy Zoeller?
Will Hideki Matsuyama land Japan’s first major men’s title?
Can Danny Willett rediscover his lost form to give a decent defence of his crown?
Throw all those factors into the pot and you can see why something tasty is about to be cooked up over the next few days, when the weather could be a big factor. Thunderstorms disrupted Monday’s practice round, softening up the course considerably, and more bad weather is on its way today.
The wind is then set to blow for the opening two rounds – gusts could get as high as 35mph – before the final 36 holes are played in calmer conditions.
So, what about the answers to some of those questions?
The first one could determine how this whole event pans out. Apart from one big blip, after all, Spieth has been the dominant player here in recent years.
He’s 2-1-2 in three appearances and has held the lead in seven of the last eight rounds. If he can safely negotiate the 12th in the first round – and I’m confident he will – that second Green Jacket would well be slipped belatedly on to his shoulders on Sunday night.
The American has the best putting touch this game has seen since Woods in his prime and his tee-to-green is a lot better coming into this week than it was 12 months ago.
He’d be the title favourite, for sure, if it hadn’t been for Johnson hitting his rich vein of form. The big-hitter has chalked up three wins on the trot, two of them WGC successes since he became world No.1.
He’s also done well here over the past couple of years, finishing sixth and fourth, and, of course, finally got that major monkey off his back in last year’s US Open.
The wet course will play into Johnson’s hands as others struggle with it becoming even longer than normal. He’s also got a wedge game these days that is allowing him to take advantage of being a lot closer to greens than he used to.
On form, DJ is definitely the man to beat, but the spotlight on him could play into the hands of others, notably Spieth and McIlroy.
The Northern Irishman should have won here, of course, in 2011 and it has definitely taken him time to try and get that back-nine meltdown out of his system.
He’s getting there slowly but surely and, although he’s been fairly quiet in the build-up, this could be the week when McIlroy does indeed complete that career Grand Slam.
It’s all about how he putts, in truth. He’s not in the same league as Spieth when it comes to holing those clutch putts but it’s an area he’s put a lot of focus on for this title crack.
As for Rahm, he could indeed become a first-time winner, having taken the game by storm this season. He’s got plenty of inspiration here as well, of course, when you think of the exploits of both Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal in the past.
Matsuyama, too, is a strong contender, having been in the second last group in the final round 12 months ago before taking his game to a new level with a string of notable successes.
Willett is among an 11-strong English contingent – a record in this event for any country other than the US. Scotland, in comparison, has just two representatives – Russell Knox and 1988 winner Sandy Lyle.
Knox missed the cut on his debut last year but won’t get caught up in the first-time hype this time around. If he can get his putter working, the 31-year-old is more than capable of getting in the mix.
So, which of those questions will provide the decisive answer? For me, it has to be Speith conquering his demons and regaining that position at the top of the Masters leaderboard on Sunday.