A Walk down Magnolia Lane

The 2018 Masters preview: Tiger's return should make for a memorable tournament

The 2018 Masters preview: Tiger's return should make for a memorable tournament
Tiger Woods has created a buzz at Augusta. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

We are finally here!  Every golfer and golf fan alike looks forward to this week.  It’s the first major of the professional golf year. It’s the course that every kid dreams of playing.  It’s the tournament that even the greatest of all time consider the best: The Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club.  

Among the tall pines of Georgia, in a small, quaint town, sits a plot of land many in the golfing community consider the greatest course ever built.  The bentgrass greens are immaculate. The fairways seem to be the greenest in all the world. The sand of the bunkers almost snow white. The pine straw amongst the trees seems almost as if it too is groomed on a daily basis.  There is not a speck of trash anywhere in sight. These truly are hallowed grounds. The tag-line every year a fitting summary, “A Tradition unlike any other.” Every aspect of the tournament, the course, and the players this year is leading up to a Sunday that should not disappoint.  Many in the media and even players are whispering about this being the most anticipated Masters in history and I, for one, agree. There are three main reasons why this Masters will prove to be the best for a long time to come. Let’s take a look at each one.

The Course

I tried my best to wax poetic about the course in the paragraph above.  As I’m sure you noticed, I’m no Robert Frost. My lack of prose aside, Augusta National is truly a sight to behold.  Walking through the gates is like walking into a Norman Rockwell painting. No cell phones are allowed on the course, so you actually have to engage with other human beings, which is nice.  And on top of that, there is a strict no running policy. So you don’t have to deal with the throngs of people sprinting from shot to shot. If you get to the course early enough to place a chair (a Masters specific chair purchased at the golf shop) around any of the greens, you can get up and walk around and no one will swipe your spot.  You just leave the chair in its spot, and it’s there for you when you decide to return. The concessions on site are priced like it’s still the first tournament held in the 1930s. A ham and cheese sandwich is only $1.50. A domestic light beer is only $4. You can walk the grounds all day, eat three meals with a beer and still have change from your $50 bill.  The ticket prices will set you back quite a bit, but once you’re in, it’s quite reasonable. With the course being as nice as it is, and the aura surrounding the tournament; that leads into the next reason.

The Fans

You don’t just randomly go to Augusta.  It’s not like a normal tournament, where a couple of friends say, “What are you up to this weekend?  Wanna go to the golf tournament? I can still get tickets.” This event is something that is planned well in advance.  Getting tickets is difficult enough, the price nonwithstanding. All in all, that leads to a much more engaged set of fans at the tournament.  Everyone has their stories of how they got there. Each iconic shot is talked about as they pass by the spot it was hit from. As the players make their way around course, the quiet is almost eerie.  Not until a long putt is dropped, or a wedge is stuck to three feet, is that quiet broken. And boy oh boy, when it is broken, it is deafening. The trees seem to carry the message of the amazing shot throughout the entire course.  Everyone on the grounds hears the roars and knows to look up at the iconic leaderboards strategically placed throughout the course. The moment that birdie is posted, the echoing cheers reverberate back through the trees. The whispers on Sunday turn into a buzz of excitement.  Everyone becomes friends, just like these guys behind Tiger’s epic chip-in at No. 16 in 2005 (the whole video is worth a watch, but the infamous “hug” occurs at 3:15, and they are on the far left of the screen.)  But the fans are there to watch the greatest in the world, and that is why this year’s Masters is shaping up to be an all-timer.

The Players

The stars must have aligned for this year’s tournament.  Never have we seen this many high caliber players all playing well entering the Masters.  Let’s start with the defending champ, Sergio Garcia. He captured his first major in 74 tries here last year.  Beginning this year, he has a win in Singapore, and three top ten finishes in big tournaments. His total strokes gained is fourth in the world.  He is striking the ball quite well. Next is Jordan Spieth, who up until last week at The Houston Open, was struggling with his game. However, a putting lesson from his coach and a fourth-place finish in Houston show that this former champ is rounding into form.  Dustin Johnson, who is still No. 1 in the world, has a win already this year and also three top five finishes. With his distance (and also him avoiding any small sets of stairs), he should be contending come this weekend. Another young rising star, Justin Thomas, is poised to win his first green jacket.  He already has two wins this year, and lost in a playoff for his third. He currently sits at number two in the world, and with a win this week could vault himself to the top. Every aspect of his game seems to be peaking right now, and he definitely knows how to close out the big ones. That playoff loss that Thomas had was to Phil Mickelson, who at 47 years young, just won the WGC-Mexico Championship.  This was his first win since 2013, but he had two top five finishes leading up to that win. Needless to say, the three-time winner of the Masters knows how to get around Augusta and his game is right for doing so. Probably an afterthought going into 2018, Bubba Watson has found a resurgence of form. He has two wins so far in 2018, one at the famed Riviera Country Club, and another two weeks ago in Austin at the Dell-Technologies Matchplay.  He is a two-time winner of the green jacket, and if he can putt well this week, he will prove to be a force all four days. But folks, let’s be honest. None of that is what is causing the stir. Bubba and Phil and Jordan aren’t causing the media to salivate at all the possible headlines for this years Masters. The bottom line is that Tiger Woods is back at Augusta! Not only is he back playing, but he is playing well. Less than a year after spinal fusion surgery, Tiger comes into Augusta with three top-15 finishes in 2018, including a T2 at the Valspar Championship.  He is swinging his driver at an incredible 122 mph, which is insanely fast for even the healthiest of players. His short game is on point, proven by a chip-in for eagle at No. 2 during his Tuesday practice round. And his overall putting average is third on Tour entering this week. He is a four-time winner here at Augusta, and arguably the greatest golfer of all time. Needless to say, he is all the media can talk about so far this week. Tuesdays are generally reserved as the official “media day” for the Masters Tournament. Many of the players make their way through to the media room, and today every single one of them answered questions about Tiger.  “What’s it like to have Tiger back?” “Is it better or worse playing against Tiger?” These and many others were all that was being asked. But who can blame them? Tiger moves the needle like no one else. In his return to play this year, he took the early lead at the Valspar Championship on Friday morning. That sent shockwaves throughout the sports world. So many people tried to tune in to the PGA Tour Live app that it crashed (which is had never done in the previous year and a half.) Let’s all just be honest with ourselves and admit that Tiger is why we watch golf. Yes, all those other guys are great, and can be a lot of fun to watch; but Tiger Woods makes golf better.  

If you’re like me, and plan to watch as much of the Masters as possible; I highly recommend the Masters App.  It has streaming coverage of just about anything you can think of (I spent a solid two hours Tuesday just watching guys on the range!)  The Par 3 Contest is on Wednesday and is always a nice relaxing, family-centered event before the real tournament begins. Thursday begins the date with destiny that all these players have.  Who will it be this year? Like I said before, this is shaping up to be one of the best Masters we’ve seen in a long time. I can’t wait for the roars on Sunday

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The Astros have their work cut out for them. Composite Getty Image.

Through 20 games, the Houston Astros have managed just six wins and are in last place in the AL West.

Their pitching staff trails only Colorado with a 5.24 ERA and big-money new closer Josh Hader has given up the same number of earned runs in 10 games as he did in 61 last year.

Despite this, these veteran Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series seven consecutive times, have no doubt they’ll turn things around.

“If there’s a team that can do it, it’s this team,” shortstop Jeremy Peña said.

First-year manager Joe Espada, who was hired in January to replace the retired Dusty Baker, discussed his team’s early struggles.

“It’s not ideal,” he said. “It’s not what we expected, to come out of the shoot playing this type of baseball. But you know what, this is where we’re at and we’ve got to pick it up and play better. That’s just the bottom line.”

Many of Houston’s problems have stemmed from a poor performance by a rotation that has been decimated by injuries. Ace Justin Verlander and fellow starter José Urquidy haven’t pitched this season because of injuries and lefty Framber Valdez made just two starts before landing on the injured list with a sore elbow.

Ronel Blanco, who threw a no-hitter in his season debut April 1, has pitched well and is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts this season. Cristian Javier is also off to a good start, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in four starts, but the team has won just two games not started by those two pitchers.

However, Espada wouldn’t blame the rotation for Houston’s current position.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster how we've played overall,” he said. “One day we get good starting pitching, some days we don’t. The middle relief has been better and sometimes it hasn’t been. So, we’ve just got to put it all together and then play more as a team. And once we start doing that, we’ll be in good shape.”

The good news for the Astros is that Verlander will make his season debut Friday night when they open a series at Washington and Valdez should return soon after him.

“Framber and Justin have been a great part of our success in the last few years,” second baseman Jose Altuve said. “So, it’s always good to have those two guys back helping the team. We trust them and I think it’s going to be good.”

Hader signed a five-year, $95 million contract this offseason to give the Astros a shutdown 7-8-9 combination at the back end of their bullpen with Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly. But the five-time All-Star is off to a bumpy start.

He allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss to the Braves on Monday night and has yielded eight earned runs this season after giving up the same number in 56 1/3 innings for San Diego last year.

He was much better Wednesday when he struck out the side in the ninth before the Astros fell to Atlanta in 10 innings for their third straight loss.

Houston’s offense, led by Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, ranks third in the majors with a .268 batting average and is tied for third with 24 homers this season. But the Astros have struggled with runners in scoring position and often failed to get a big hit in close games.

While many of Houston’s hitters have thrived this season, one notable exception is first baseman José Abreu. The 37-year-old, who is in the second year of a three-year, $58.5 million contract, is hitting 0.78 with just one extra-base hit in 16 games, raising questions about why he remains in the lineup every day.

To make matters worse, his error on a routine ground ball in the eighth inning Wednesday helped the Braves tie the game before they won in extra innings.

Espada brushed off criticism of Abreu and said he knows the 2020 AL MVP can break out of his early slump.

“Because (of) history,” Espada said. “The back of his baseball card. He can do it.”

Though things haven’t gone well for the Astros so far, everyone insists there’s no panic in this team which won its second World Series in 2022.

Altuve added that he doesn’t have to say anything to his teammates during this tough time.

“I think they’ve played enough baseball to know how to control themselves and how to come back to the plan we have, which is winning games,” he said.

The clubhouse was quiet and somber Wednesday after the Astros suffered their third series sweep of the season and second at home. While not panicking about the slow start, this team, which has won at least 90 games in each of the last three seasons, is certainly not happy with its record.

“We need to do everything better,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I feel like we’re in a lot of games, but we just haven’t found a way to win them. And good teams find a way to win games. So we need to find a way to win games.”

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