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The First Look: Masters Tournament

  • THE TAKEAWAY

    Sergio gets it done, a playoff for the ages & Kuch’s ace

Resurgent World Golf Championships winners Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson – both multiple Masters titleholders – join FedExCup leader Justin Thomas as the spotlight shines on Augusta National even hotter than most years.

The gathering of elite names arriving off recent victories also includes Rory McIlroy, Paul Casey, Jason Day and Jon Rahm. Nor does that factor in world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, defending champion Sergio Garcia and a wild card with four green jackets – Tiger Woods.

FIELD NOTES: The expected roster stands at 86 names, which would make it the smallest at Augusta National since the same number participated in the 1997 edition. And that includes one special invitation given to India’s Shubhankar Sharma, twice a European Tour winner in 2018. … Chez Reavie, runner-up at both Phoenix and Pebble Beach, is among four who secured berths at last Monday’s final cutoff for the rankings’ top 50. … One more slot is open for the winner of this week’s Houston Open, if not already qualified. … Fifteen of this year’s entrants are set for their Masters debuts, four fewer than 2017. Among this year’s newbies: Patton Kizzire, No. 2 in the FedExCup standings after two wins this season, and 2017 Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele.

FEDEXCUP: Winner receives 600 points.

STORYLINES: With so many A-list players arriving in form, anticipation for this year’s edition has been white-hot for more than a month. … The greatest attention falls on Woods, making his first start at Augusta since 2015. It’s been 13 years since his most recent green jacket, but he arrives off top-5 finishes at the Valspar Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational. … Mickelson, 47, has a chance to eclipse Jack Nicklaus’s epic 1986 win as the oldest champion in Masters annals. He’s enjoyed his best spring in years, with four consecutive top-10 finishes that included victory at the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship. … McIlroy, seeking again to complete a career Grand Slam, is two weeks removed from a Sunday 64 to win at Bay Hill. He would become just the sixth man to accomplish that slam. … Justin Rose owns a pair of runner-up finishes in the past three Masters, including last year’s playoff loss to Garcia. He arrived in Houston off a pair of top-5 finishes. … Garcia has played it close to the vest about the menu for Tuesday night’s champions dinner. Spanish cuisine is almost a certainty, though.

COURSE: Augusta National Golf Club, 7,435 yards, par 72. Once the site of a tree nursery, the landscape now has served more than eight decades as one of golf’s grand showcases. Bobby Jones and co-designer Alistair McKenzie unlocked a stage for Sunday drama amid the pines and flora, with tweaks made each year as needed. Though an expansion era saw the course lengthened four times from 1999-2006, stability has allowed players and club officials a better understanding of the nuances in the revamped layout. Augusta National’s signature magnolia trees and azaleas are holdovers from the Fruitlands nursery operation that previously stood.

72-HOLE RECORD: 270, Tiger Woods (1997), Jordan Spieth (2015).

18-HOLE RECORD: 63, Nick Price (3rd round, 1986), Greg Norman (1st round, 1996).

LAST YEAR: Garcia finally shed the label of “best player never to win a major,” overcoming a two-shot deficit with six holes left to tie Rose and eventually prevail on the first extra hole. Near the lead all week, Garcia appeared destined to be snakebit again when an errant drive at the par-5 13th settled under an azalea bush to require a penalty drop. But the Spaniard saved par, followed by birdie/eagle to draw even with Rose with three to play. Rose regained the lead with a birdie at the par-3 16th, but gave it back with a bogey at No. 17. Both parred No. 18 to finish off matching 69s, only for Rose to watch his drive sail into the trees as the playoff commenced. Garcia found the fairway, placed his approach 12 feet from the flagstick and left no doubt when his birdie putt dropped. Victory came in Garcia’s 74th major start – the most by any pro before finally breaking through.

HOW TO FOLLOW

TELEVISION: Thursday-Friday, 3-7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN), highlights show 11:35-11:50 p.m. (CBS). Saturday, 3-7 p.m. (CBS). Sunday, 2-7 p.m. (CBS).