By Nicola Kenton

  • Tiger Woods will play in a major for the first time since 2015
  • Paul Casey and Rory McIlroy have both won tournaments recently
  • Ian Poulter secures the final place with victory at the Houston Open
AUGUSTA, UNITED STATES – Ian Poulter joins the US Masters field with victory at the Houston Open, which features Paul Casey and Rory McIlroy who have had wins in recent weeks, as well as Tiger Woods.

 

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Poulter qualifies at the last chance

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Ian Poulter left qualification for this year’s Masters to the last minute with victory at the Houston Open. The Brit thought he had already qualified during the World Golf Championships Match Play but was told he had to win his quarter-final, just ten minutes before the match began, to secure his place. Ultimately, Poulter lost to American Kevin Kisner 8&6 and knew what he had to achieve at the Houston Open.

After the first round in Houston, Poulter had shot one-over-par and was sat tied for 123rd on the leader board but came back with vengeance with a 64 on the Friday. Saturday saw the Brit shoot a seven-under-par 65 to finish joint at the top with American Beau Hossler. Early on the final day Poulter had a three-shot lead over the pack, which included Matt Kuchar, Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson and Hossler. However, the Brit could not keep that lead and Hossler birdied four holes in-a-row to have a one-shot lead heading onto the 18th tee. Both players had putts on a similar line but it was the American who had the first shot and missed his birdie opportunity by millimetres; whereas, the Brit holed his to force a sudden death play-off.

The players returned to the 18th hole and it was Poulter who had the advantage as Hossler ended up in the bunker. In the next shot, the American chipped over the green and into the water which left Poulter with a three-shot cushion; the Brit two-putted to secure victory and a place at the 2018 Masters.

Speaking after the match, the Brit said: “It’s been a long road the last couple of years with injury, questioning whether I’ve got a PGA TOUR card or not, and then obviously having some form and not quite finishing off in the past. Disappointment kicks in at some stages but you know what? At times you have to dig deep. When you want something bad enough, then you have to go right down to the bottom and grab hold of what you can and come back up. The journey continues, I’ve had 19 good years on TOUR and I guess I’ve got another couple coming. So there’s life in the old dog yet.”

 

The Return of Tiger Woods to the Major scene

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In November, the fourteen-time major champion announced his comeback to golf and there have been signs that the Tiger Woods of old has returned. The Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas was the venue for the return, testing his physicality and seeing whether he could challenge across four days. Woods finished with a score of eight-under-par and ended the tournament in joint ninth place. Questions had been asked before the tournament and some had been answered, but in the months since the former number one has shown glimpses which have made golf fans very excited – both in his swing and on the putting greens.

Although Woods is yet to win a tournament, he has been in contention at both the Valspar Championship in Florida and the Arnold Palmer Invitational finishing tied second and tied fifth. For the younger players on tour who haven’t played at the Masters with Woods alongside them, it will be a different experience. Fellow American, Justin Thomas, has described how the crowd elevates their noise level and that it must surely impact on the ability of Woods to play the shots that he wants. Much of the media focus will be around the American and if he gets anywhere near contention, the crowd at Augusta will be fully behind the man whose last victory came in 2005.

 

Casey and McIlroy pick up PGA wins

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In recent weeks, both Paul Casey and Rory McIlroy have picked up wins on the PGA Tour after lengthy periods without victory. Casey’s triumph came first as he beat Tiger Woods and Patrick Reed at the Valspar Championship – his first PGA victory since he won the Houston Open in 2009. The Brit came from behind to take victory, he began the day six shots back but made seven birdies and only one bogey on his round to post a total of ten-under par in the clubhouse. Fortunately for Casey, Woods was not as hot on his putter and despite a birdie on the 17th to leave him one-shot behind, he could not overhaul the Brit to claim his first victory since 2013.

A week later and it was McIlroy’s turn to end his PGA Tour drought. The Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill was the venue and Tiger Woods was on the prowl again. In the final round, Woods started five shots back but had made three birdies in four holes and won only one-shot behind the lead; however, on the 16th, the former number one carded a bogey which led to another on the next hole before rounding out with a par to finish in fifth. It was at this time that McIlroy began his charge with five birdies over the last six holes including the 25ft shot he had left on the last hole to secure his final birdie of the round and victory. It was McIlroy’s first victory since the Tour Championship on 25th September 2016, the day that Arnold Palmer died. Now both players head to the Masters with the confidence of having a recent win under their belts.

 

Bubba Watson leads the American charge

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There are currently five Americans in the top 10 golfers in the world and in the past six editions of the US Masters, three of them have been won by an American. Augusta National does not suit everybody but certain players love the course such as former world number one Jordan Spieth, who won the tournament in 2015 and has finished as runner-up in 2014 and 2016, and Bubba Watson who has triumphed twice in 2012 and 2014. When Watson is on form, he is hard to stop and that was proved at the World Golf Championships Match Play where he beat Kevin Kisner in the final by 7&6.

Having spoken about McIlroy and Casey who claimed PGA victories after a lengthy drought, Phil Mickelson is another player who has recently ended his hoodoo. Mickelson’s victory came at the WGC Mexico Championship where he defeated compatriot Justin Thomas in a play-off. The 47-year-old recorded a five-under-par final round and recorded his first victory since he won the UK Open Championship in 2013.

World number two Thomas had claimed victory the weekend before at the Honda Classic and missed out on the chance to go to the top of the world rankings at the World Golf Championships having lost to Watson in the semi-finals. However, the American is one of the threats heading into this year’s Masters tournament.

 

A few more Brits to keep an eye on

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Former champions must always be watched at Augusta National, they know how to play the course and a perk of getting invited back every year, is that they know most of the pin positions that are possible. However, there are a few other Brits to look out for at the 2018 US Masters. Justin Rose has been a consistent performer on the world stage for a while, the Rio Olympic gold medallist finished second at the tournament in 2015 and 2017 – losing in a play-off to Sergio Garcia last year. In the tournaments leading up to the Masters, Rose has been fairly consistent with top ten performances at the Hero World Challenge, Farmers Insurance Open and Valspar Championship along with third place at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Tommy Fleetwood is a similar player to 2016 champion Danny Willett, they have the skills available to them but do not perform at the highest level all the time. Fleetwood has had some encouraging results since his win at the Abu Dhabi Championship, he finished fourth at the Honda Classic, tied 14th at the Mexico Championship and 17th at the WGC Match Play. Similarly, Tyrrell Hatton has produced similar results when he tied third at the Mexico Champions, tied ninth in the Match Play and tied 11th at the HSBC Champions.

The 2018 US Masters begins with the par-3 tournament on Wednesday 7th April before the official tournament starts on Thursday with coverage on Sky Sports and the BBC.

 

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