If the events this weekend at the last PGA TOUR stop in Florida are any indication, the 2018 Masters Tournament is shaping up to be a modern classic.
When Tiger Woods added the Valspar Championship – played at a tough Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Golf Resort in Palm Harbor, Florida – to his schedule, things got instantly more interesting for the final leg of the Florida swing. Woods’ readiness to play signaled a return to health for his back and the game at large. Whether you’re a golf fan, a sports fan or just interested in the human condition, the events at the Valspar had to have piqued your curiosity.
For three rounds, the genius that was once omnipresent in Woods’ game was on full display. He was outdriving most of the field, and mostly doing it straight. Crisp irons and silky putting kept him near the lead, until a lackluster final round handed England’s Paul Casey his first PGA TOUR victory in nine years. Though, Casey did need a final-round 65 to pull off the feat.
The question remains: Is Woods’ resurgent play simply a return to form, or a burgeoning return to greatness? The crowds lining the fairways, clamoring to get a glimpse of just one swing of the club, seemed ready to will Woods to his 80th TOUR victory. The electricity was there, but the final-round fireworks were missing until the par-3 17th hole. There, Woods dropped a 44-foot bomb of a putt – center cut and dead weight – to climb to within one shot of the lead.
A dramatic comeback win was not to be, but the drama – and the result – tease at a brilliant Masters to come.
Of course, Woods is not the only grizzled vet to inject excitement into the game as of late. After several continuous years of a youth uprising in the game, golf’s aging stars are putting on a show. Phil Mickelson proved his game can withstand the onslaught of time and ever-hungry younger players when he won the WGC-Mexico Championship in the week preceding Woods’ near miss.
Lefty beat last year’s PGA Championship winner Justin Thomas in a one-hole playoff to earn his first TOUR win in five years. Mickelson has clearly figured something out in his game. He has top-ten finishes in each of his last four tournaments, including a T-2 finish at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February.
And Sergio Garcia, 38 years old and far removed from the scissor-kicking teenager cemented in the American psyche, shot a scintillating, six-under 64 in the final round to finished T-2 with Woods. Garcia’s 64 included a bogey-free, 4-under 31 on the demanding back nine at Innisbrook. The 2017 Masters champion is playing pure golf in 2018, with two wins worldwide to his credit since his first major victory last year, and he is turning it up at the right time.
Of course, those veterans – Woods, Garcia and Mickelson – all have lifetime invites to the Masters, as do all past champions. But, invitations to play the most exclusive tournament in golf are few, and the opportunities to secure a tee time at Augusta National Golf Club in 2018 have whittled down to just a handful. Any win at any time of the arduously long PGA TOUR season qualifies a player for the Masters, but there are now essentially only two of those tournaments remaining.
Players seeking 2018 Masters invites can either win this week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard, or secure a last-second spot with a victory at the Houston Open – the final tournament before the Masters. The only other real possibility is to crack the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking, published the week before the Masters.
Opportunity dwindles as the date approaches. The budding azaleas at Augusta wait for no man.