There is an inevitability in major golf tournaments these days; no matter who is having the best year, who is #1 in the world, or who is the defending champion, all eyes will be glued to Tiger Woods. This year will be no different as the typical frenzy surrounding Woods and his mission to eclipse Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major wins began as soon as the ball dropped on the 2012 golf year. The talks however were more about Woods’ swing changes, his scandalous life, Hank Haney’s tell-all book etc. Woods hasn’t taken home a major title since beating Rocco Mediate in an epic 18-hole playoff at the 2008 U.S. Open. Since then, scandals and distractions have been the story of his career, notching a total of zero wins and only four top-10 finishes in 2010 and 2011 combined. The Tiger Woods who once won The Masters by 12 strokes or won the U.S. Open on a torn ACL was gone and nowhere to be found.

Two weeks ago at Bay Hill though, we saw flashes of the old Tiger. Coolly and confidently he took down the Arnold Palmer Invitational (his seventh such victory) by five shots, winning his first PGA tournament in nearly three years and reigniting a sense of hope into the golf world that the greatest to ever play the game could once again rise to the top. That singular act lay to rest speculations about the
changes in his game, his confidence, and whether he still had what it takes to be the dominant player he once was. Regardless of where he is on Sunday at Augusta (although since he has made the top-10 in seven straight years, near the top of the leader board is a safe bet), Tiger has proven that he can still get the job done in 2012 and maybe finally redeem himself in the eyes of the often-harsh sports community.

At the same time however, Tiger’s hiatus from being alone at the top in the game of golf has allowed several other players to emerge as serious contenders for the World Number One spot. The most obvious one of these is 22-year old Rory McIlroy who overtook the Number One spot with his win at the Honda Classic early in March, only to lose it back to Luke Donald just two weeks later. People thought Rory wasn’t ready for the big stage after he blew his four shot lead at Augusta last year allowing Charl Schwartzel (perhaps the most underwhelming Masters champ ever) to take the crown, and rightfully so. However, Rory came back just a few months later and took down the U.S. Open by eight shots and in a commanding fashion we’ve only ever seen from one other golfer, Tiger Woods.

 

Rory shows flashes of the creativity and confidence that made Tiger so dominant for so long and is certainly the hope of many to rise up and accept the position at the top that they see Tiger as having potentially left behind for good. The next on the list to watch is World Number One Luke Donald, a PGA Tour grinder for much of his career only recently breaking through and taking the top spot. Donald has always been an extremely consistent player with one of the prettiest swings on tour, but with a win at the Transitions to regain his World Number One just under two weeks after losing the spot to McIlroy, his fierce competitiveness is also very apparent going into Augusta. Rounding out the ones to watch has to be Hunter Mahan, the player with the most upward momentum coming into Augusta. Mahan won the WGC Match Play back in February, and took down the Shell Houston Open just this weekend. No one would be surprised to see him ride his recent wave of success to the top of the leader board at Augusta, and no one should expect see him outside of the World top-five anytime soon.

What we have going into this year’s Masters is four or five guys in a constant battle for the top spot in the World Golf Rankings. But all of them are looking over their collective shoulder as the most intimidating and probably greatest golfer of all time has put himself back into contention with perfect timing; We get to see if this new crop of golfers is the real deal or if they’re all just keeping Tiger’s seat warm at the top, and it’s all going to happen on the greatest stage in golf, The Masters.