One month from Masters Week

Golf fans won’t get to see Tiger Woods at The Players, the PGA Tour’s signature event, but they won’t have to wait long to see him back on the course.

Woods is expected to return at the Masters, the first major championship of the season. The start of the tournament at Augusta National Golf Club is about a month away.

Woods, a 15-time major champion, won’t be the only former green jacket winner making his return at Augusta. Phil Mickelson, a three-time Masters winner, is also expected to be back. Last year, he missed the tournament for the first time since 1994. Mickelson, who is now competing in the LIV Golf League, skipped the Masters while he was embroiled in controversy from his comments about the PGA Tour and the Saudi Arabian monarchy’s history of human rights violations.

Mickelson’s return will be one of the biggest storylines of Masters week, along with Rory McIlroy‘s chase of a career grand slam and Scottie Scheffler‘s attempted defense. Here’s what else to look for over the next month:

Tiger is back

All signs point to Woods being back in Augusta, where last year he made his return to competitive golf after suffering serious injuries in a car wreck in February 2021. Playing for the first time in 509 days, Woods carded a 1-under 71 in the first round and made the cut, which is something Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau didn’t do.

Woods’ surgically repaired right leg and fused back didn’t hold up in cold weather on the weekend last year. The five-time Masters champion posted back-to-back 6-over 78s in the final two rounds, his worst rounds at Augusta National. He finished 47th at 13 over.

Woods, 47, competed in two more major championships last year; he withdrew after 54 holes at the PGA Championship and missed the cut at the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews. He looked better in his first start at the Genesis this year, tying for 45th at 1 under. He said his right leg was in better shape but acknowledged his ankle and plantar fasciitis in his right foot were still bothering him.

Top contenders

Rory McIlroy: McIlroy’s quest to become the sixth golfer to complete the career grand slam in the Masters era will be one of the week’s biggest storylines. He seemed to exorcise his Augusta National demons with a final-round 64 to finish solo second last year.

Scottie Scheffler: The defending Masters champion is looking to become only the fourth player to win in back-to-back years. Jack Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Tiger Woods (2001-02) are the others.

Jon Rahm: Few players have been better over the past several months than Rahm, who has won five times in his past 10 worldwide starts. He had four straight top-10 finishes at Augusta National before tying for 27th last year.

Collin Morikawa: The two-time major championship winner keeps getting better and better at Augusta National, tying for 18th in 2021 and finishing solo fifth last year.

Will Zalatoris: A ball-striking machine, Zalatoris doesn’t seem to be showing much rust from his layoff for a back injury. He was solo second in his first Masters start in 2021 and tied for sixth last year.

Justin Thomas: Thomas picked up his second PGA Championship victory last year, and he seems have figured out Augusta National as well, with two top-10 finishes in his past three starts, including a tie for eighth in 2022.

Max Homa: Homa has played like one of the best players in the world for the past two years, winning five times since February 2021. Now, it’s time for him to perform better in the majors. He tied for 48th at Augusta National last year, his best finish in three starts. He’s putting lights out, which will help.

Cameron Smith: The reigning Open Championship winner was a Masters runner-up in 2020 and tied for third last year. The Australian might be LIV Golf’s best chance at spoiling the week. Is he playing enough competitive golf to do it?

Dustin Johnson: The 2020 Masters champion dominated the LIV Golf circuit in its inaugural season, taking home more than $35 million in purses and bonuses. He tied for 12th at Augusta National last year.

Xander Schauffele: Is this the year Schauffele picks up his first major championship victory? He missed the cut at Augusta National last year, but tied for second in 2019 and for third in 2021.

Patrick Cantlay: One of the best players in the world without a major championship victory, Cantlay’s high-mark at Augusta National was a tie for ninth in 2019. He tied for 39th last year.

Tony Finau: Finau has won three times since July, and has a pretty good track record at the first major of the season, despite tying for 35th last year. He has three top-10s under his belt, including a tie for fifth in 2019.

LIV guys will be there

On Dec. 20, the Masters became the first major championship to announce that it wouldn’t ban LIV Golf League players from returning to Augusta National and would keep the same qualifying criteria for this year’s tournament.

Barring injuries or other reasons, there will be 18 players from the LIV Golf League competing in the Masters: Abraham Ancer, Bryson DeChambeau, Sergio Garcia, Talor Gooch, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Jason Kokrak, Mickelson, Kevin Na, Joaquin Niemann, Louis Oosthuizen, Mito Pereira, Thomas Pieters, Patrick Reed, Charl Schwartzel, Cam Smith, Harold Varner III and Bubba Watson.

Even though Augusta National didn’t make it more difficult for LIV Golf players to qualify for the tournament, at least this year, Masters chairman Fred Ridley made it clear he wasn’t happy with the current division in men’s golf.

“Regrettably, recent actions have divided men’s professional golf by diminishing the virtues of the game and the meaningful legacies of those who built it,” Ridley said in a statement. “Although we are disappointed in these developments, our focus is to honor the tradition of bringing together a preeminent field of golfers this coming April.”

Garcia, Johnson, Mickelson, Reed, Schwartzel and Watson have won green jackets and will be invited to the champions dinner.

As the defending champ, Scheffler will choose the menu, which he says he hasn’t yet finalized.

“We’ve got some ideas,” Scheffler said. “I’m excited about it. Hopefully the guys will like it, too. I’m a little bit weird about my food. I don’t really branch out too much. We’ll see what they think.”

On the bubble

Harris English (Current OWGR ranking: 39): English, a member of the winning U.S. team at the 2021 Ryder Cup, was in danger of missing the Masters after sitting out much of 2022 with a hip injury. After tying for second at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, however, he climbed 40 spots in the world rankings and looks to be safe.

Jason Day (Current OWGR ranking: 43): After missing the Masters last year for the first time since 2010, Day is on the right side of the number for now. He’s healthy and made some swing changes, and the results have been good with three straight top-10s at the Farmers Insurance Open, WM Phoenix Open and The Genesis.

Keith Mitchell (Current OWGR ranking: 47): Another former Georgia star, Mitchell is playing some of the best golf of his career. He tied for fourth in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and was fifth in The Genesis. He has played in the Masters only once, tying for 43rd in 2019.

Min Woo Lee (Current OWGR ranking: 50): The Australian tied for 14th in his first Masters start in 2022. His older sister, Minjee, is the reigning U.S. Women’s Open champion.

Lucas Herbert (Current OWGR ranking: 51): Buoyed by consecutive third-place finishes in the Hero Dubai Classic and PIF Saudi International, the Australian is right on the bubble and needs to play well.

Taylor Montgomery (Current OWGR ranking: 56): After a sizzling start to his PGA Tour career, the former UNLV star cooled down with back-to-back missed cuts at the WM Phoenix Open and The Genesis.

Victor Perez (Current OWGR ranking: 60): Perez, from France, started the year ranked outside the top 100 in the world. But then he won the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and played well in two other DP World Tour events to get back in the mix.

Hello, again

Chris Kirk: The former University of Georgia star is in the Masters field for the first time since missing the cut in 2016. He picked up his first PGA Tour victory in almost eight years at the Honda Classic last month.

Keegan Bradley: Bradley, who tied for seventh in the U.S. Open at Brookline, will be making his second Masters start in seven years and first since 2019. His best finish at Augusta National was a tie for 22nd in 2015.

Scott Stallings: It might have taken some extra time for Stallings’ invitation to arrive, but it’s one he’ll cherish after waiting nine years to play in the Masters again. He tied for 27th in 2012 and missed the cut in 2014.

Alex Noren: Noren, from Sweden, will be making his first Masters start since tying for 62nd in 2019. He missed the cut in two other starts at Augusta National.

Aaron Wise: Wise finished 17th in his first Masters start in 2019 and then missed the field in each of the next three years. He carded a 5-under 67 in the final round, which matched Jason Day for the lowest round that day.

Names to know

Adrian Meronk: Meronk, 29, became the first Polish player to make the cut in a PGA Tour event at The Genesis in February. A two-time winner on the DP World Tour qualified for the Masters by finishing in the top 50 in the world last year.

Gordon Sargent: The Vanderbilt sophomore is the reigning NCAA Division I men’s champion, and was the first freshman since 2007 to win the title. His scoring average in his first six events this season is 67.3.

Sam Bennett: A fifth-year senior at Texas A&M, Bennett captured the 2022 U.S. Amateur Championship. He grew up playing on a nine-hole course in Texas that “kind of looks like a cow pasture.”

Ben Carr: The Georgia Southern senior was runner-up at the 2022 U.S. Amateur Championship. Carr is still an amateur but secured his PGA Tour Canada card last month.

Mateo Fernandez de Oliveira: A senior at Arkansas, Fernandez de Oliveira won the Latin America Amateur Championship with a record-low total of 23-under 265. The Argentina native also earned spots in the U.S. Open and Open Championship.

Changes to the 13th hole

Augusta National is hoping the par-5 13th hole, which has traditionally been the easiest on the iconic course, will be a little more challenging this year.

The 13th hole, known as “Azalea,” has been lengthened by 35 yards, to 545 yards. It was the only distance change listed in the Masters media guide. The updated length of the course is 7,545 yards.

With a tributary to Rae’s Creek protecting the green on the hard dogleg-left hole, the added distance will leave golfers with a more difficult decision in whether to go for the green in two. Augusta National previously purchased land from adjoining Augusta Country Club to push back the 13th tees.

At last year’s Masters, Ridley said players’ increased distance off the tee had dramatically changed how Bobby Jones intended for the hole to be played.

“The 13th hole does not have the same challenges that it has historically,” Ridley said. “The fact that players are hitting middle to short irons into that hole is not really how it was designed. My reluctance to date has been that it’s such an iconic hole. Probably along with 12 and maybe 15, the three holes where the most history has been made at Augusta National. So that has been sort of a counter to doing anything. But at some point in time, it’s something that we likely will do. We just don’t have anything to say about it right now.”

The Par 3 Contest, which will be held on April 5, will take place on a short course that has been vastly redesigned. Holes 1-5 were redone, and, according to Eureka Earth, several new structures were added.

Eureka Earth also had a photo of construction in May.

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