Masters mixes old, new and drama at Augusta National

Scottie Scheffler is on fire. Jon Rahm is defending. Rory McIlroy may be peaking. And Tiger Woods is back.

The 88th Masters Tournament promises plenty of plotlines when the first major championship of the year tees off Thursday in Augusta, Ga.

Scheffler’s claim as the best golfer in the world has only grown. His past three starts on the PGA Tour included two wins and a tie for second. But the 2022 champion at Augusta National Golf Club hasn’t returned to the winner’s circle at a major since.

“I think people may not realize how difficult the golf course is, especially when the wind is blowing. And I think we’re going to have another couple days of wind here where the winds are going to be pretty high and it swirls like crazy around this place,” Scheffler said.

“And you have to stay so patient and trust in all aspects of your game because there is a certain type of player that can play well on this golf course, but at the end of the day you have to have trust in all aspects of your game. And I think this is a place where it’s extremely important to kind of have that trust in yourself.”

Last year, Rahm fended off Brooks Koepka on Sunday to win the green jacket, his second major victory. The Spaniard has since joined Koepka on the LIV Golf circuit; they are two of 13 LIV players on the property this week, a group that also includes past Masters champions Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia of Spain, Bubba Watson, Charl Schwartzel of South Africa and Phil Mickelson.

Rahm, who won last year on the birthday of his idol, Seve Ballesteros, said he wants his legacy to include having more people in his native Spain pick up the game. He was asked if leaving the PGA Tour will affect his legacy.

“I mean, will it change? Yeah,” Rahm said. “It’s a bit of a detour on my path. But change can be better.”

Of everyone who has played at least 25 rounds at the Masters, Rahm owns the best career scoring average at 70.5. Jordan Spieth, the 2015 champ who tied for fourth last year, is close behind at 70.66.

McIlroy (71.5 career average) leads the group that has played at least 50 Masters rounds, yet he’s still in search of his first victory at Augusta. A win this week would both snap his nearly 10-year major championship drought and complete his career Grand Slam.

The Northern Irishman believes he has set himself up for success this year. He played last week’s Valero Texas Open to get into tournament shape and placed third. He also paid a visit to famed golf instructor Butch Harmon, whom McIlroy described as “part sort of psychologist, part swing coach.”

“I play 25 weeks a year, and there’s no point in doing anything different this week compared to other weeks,” McIlroy said. “… So it’s just about going out there and being relaxed and being in the right frame of mind. And the more I can do that, the more I’ll be able to execute on the golf course.”

Woods is ready to return to competition after his comeback at February’s Genesis Invitational was cut short when he had flu-like symptoms. Last year at Augusta, Woods withdrew before the end of the third round due to plantar fasciitis and later underwent left ankle surgery.

Woods is limited physically; walking 18 holes for four straight days remains a bigger challenge than hitting any particular golf shot. But the five-time Masters champ wouldn’t be in the field if he didn’t think he could raise that total to six.

“If everything comes together, I think I can get one more,” Woods said.

Should Woods make the cut Friday (top 50 and ties, plus anyone within 10 shots of the lead), he will break the record for consecutive made cuts at the Masters with 24, surpassing Gary Player and Fred Couples.

The par-5 second hole was lengthened by 10 yards this year, bringing Augusta National to 7,555 yards.

No Masters debutant has won the green jacket since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. Notable first-timers this week include 2023 U.S Open champ Wyndham Clark, Ryder Cup star Ludvig Aberg of Sweden and Akshay Bhatia. The 22-year-old Bhatia earned the final invite by winning the Texas Open in a playoff last week.