The first major of the year is here, and the anticipation for this year's Masters could not be higher.
Between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson being back, the first meeting of LIV Golf and PGA Tour players at Augusta National Golf Club, as well as Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy continuing to play hot potato with the No. 1 world ranking, there are plenty of compelling storylines as the golf world descends on the sport's most famous venue.
Here's what to watch for in Georgia this week:
What can we expect from Tiger this week?
Mark Schlabach: Last year, Tiger hadn't played competitively in 508 days and showed up at the Masters and made his 23rd consecutive cut. He played well over the first 36 holes, but the cold weather caught up with his surgically repaired right leg and back, making one of the most difficult walks in all of golf even tougher. He carded a 6-over 78 in each of the last two rounds, his worst score at the Masters. He looked better physically at the Genesis and said his right leg is stronger than it was a year ago, but he's still being bothered by his right ankle. I think he'll make the cut again because he knows the course better than anyone else in the field. I think a top-25 finish isn't completely out of the question for Tiger, but I'd find it difficult to believe he can do better than that.
Paolo Uggetti: Given what we saw at Riviera, where Tiger looked a bit more comfortable walking while his game showed plenty of promising flashes, I think making the cut will be the low bar that he should be able to clear. In an ideal world, the five-time champion would have had at least one more appearance before arriving at the Masters, but health is more paramount than ensuring his game is sharp. If Tiger can succeed at any place with just one competitive tournament under his belt, it's Augusta. Even if the walk is tougher than most courses, the warm weather should help him, and I'd venture to guess he is going to get an early start Thursday and a long break before his second round Friday. I won't go as far as to say he will contend, but it should be another promising step in this new stage of his career.
What can we expect from Phil this week?
Schlabach: Given the way Mickelson played in the majors last year and what he did in LIV Golf's first three tournaments this season, finishing 27th in Mexico, 32nd in Tucson, Arizona, and 41st in Orlando, Florida, I wouldn't expect much of anything. He isn't playing well and hasn't in a while, and it's going to be a circus around him in Augusta. Mickelson won't address the media in a formal news conference before the Masters starts Thursday, so there's going to be a microscope on him during practice and the early rounds, after he skipped this event, which he has won three times, in 2022. There will still be some patrons cheering for him.
Uggetti: I honestly have no idea. Mickelson has looked like a shell of himself -- figuratively and literally -- since bolting for LIV, and his performance at last year's U.S. Open (the last major he participated in) was particularly poor. Since thumbs-upping his way out of that tournament, Mickelson has shown absolutely no signs of life in any of LIV's events, consistently finishing near the bottom of the leaderboard. He has finished 27th or worse in eight of his 10 appearances. Then again, Mickelson is a past winner here, and it would be some kind of dark twist to the whole PGA Tour-LIV Golf saga if he somehow turned back the clock and competed this week.
Speaking of the PGA Tour vs. LIV Golf, how much of the feud is going to be on display?
Schlabach: I don't think it's going to be as much of a storyline as expected because everyone is going to be on their best behavior at Augusta National. The LIV Golf players are probably going to be sporting their team logos on shirts and hats, so the elephant in the room isn't going to be completely invisible. I just don't know how many of LIV Golf's 18 participants are going to be real contenders. Australia's Cameron Smith, who tied for second in 2020 and tied for third last year, has played well here. He hasn't played much this season, though, and his form hasn't been great lately, finishing 26th in Tucson and 29th in Orlando. Past champions Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed haven't played much, either. Brooks Koepka won the Orlando event and is suddenly playing better. With the LIV Golf League placing such an emphasis on the team competition -- go RangeGoats! -- can they simply flip the switch and get back to playing as individuals? And finish 72 holes? Chances are one or two of them will be on the leaderboard Sunday, though.
Uggetti: It all depends, but I think it will ebb and flow depending on the tournament's results and what players say on the podium. The pairings and the Champions Dinner will certainly bring it into the limelight, but I think once the tournament starts, the only way it will become a part of the weekend's story is if LIV players are in contention. With 18 LIV players in the field, that's very much in play, and it will be fascinating to watch how Augusta, the patrons and the rest of the players react to the potential of a LIV player winning the sport's biggest tournament.
Who's your dark horse pick for the week?
Schlabach: It's probably not too much of a stretch to say that a guy who finished runner-up in his first Masters appearance and tied for eighth in his third would be a dark horse, but I'm not sure there are too many people picking Sungjae Im to win a green jacket this week. In 2020, the South Korean became the first Asian player to finish runner-up, and he held the first-round lead two years later. Im has won two times on tour and loves playing at Augusta National. Im doesn't hit the ball especially far off the tee, but he keeps it in the fairway and has a solid all-around game.
Uggetti: It feels like every big tournament these days is going to be won by either Scheffler, McIlroy or Rahm, which makes it difficult to look beyond them to find an unexpected winner. I'll take Jason Day. He's obviously been trending in the right direction -- five top-10s in the past six tournaments and 11 top-20 finishes this season -- and it appears the swing changes he has made have paid dividends. Day has missed the cut in the past two Masters he has played in, but he finished top-5 in 2019. A win at Augusta would be a fitting, storybook-like way to cap what has been a long, up-and-down road back to the top of the game.
Who are you definitely not picking this week?
Schlabach: Patrick Cantlay is one of the best players in the world, especially with a driver in his hand. But his performance in major championships is perplexing, to say the least. He has only one top-5 finish in a major -- a tie for third at the 2019 PGA Championship -- and one top-10 at the Masters, a tie for ninth in 2019. The light switch is going to go off for Cantlay at some point and he's going to contend for a major championship. I just don't think it's going to be this week.
Uggetti: Will Zalatoris. This could look like a poor choice in retrospect, given that Zalatoris has proved to be a supremely better player when playing in majors, but be it injury or putting woes, Zalatoris has struggled this season. After finishing tied for 11th at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, Zalatoris finished tied for 36th and missed the cut before finishing fourth at Riviera. In the past three tournaments, however, Zalatoris has finished tied for 53rd, 73rd and tied for 59th. Even more damning, Zalatoris is ranked 137th in strokes gained putting one year after finishing 103rd in the same stat last season.