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Mike Anthony: Justin Thomas will emerge victorious from crowded Masters field
04032018 MASTERS1
Justin Thomas watches his tee shot on the sixth hole during round six at the Dell Technologies Match Play golf tournament, Sunday, March 25, 2018, in Austin, Texas. - photo by Associated Press

As the most talked-about week in golf commences in Augusta, I feel like a kid in a candy store.

I’m excited to tune in to the Masters every spring and have even had the opportunity to walk the grounds a couple times. Ironically, when I received word I would have the honor of providing a full week’s worth of coverage from Augusta, I was attending a party held at a restaurant overlooking a golf course.

It was all I could do to keep myself from marching down to the 18th green and throwing myself a personal green jacket ceremony of sorts.

And while I’m looking to take in new personal experiences, the main event remains the tournament itself.

The Masters’ small field always provides the most concentrated assemblage of golfing talent to appear in any tournament field, but the 2018 edition might be the most star-studded — and up-for-grabs — field to date.

To begin, there is Sergio Garcia. The Spaniard has been regarded as one of the best golfers in the world for nearly two decades, but he had always come up just short in majors before piecing together a brilliant second nine charge Sunday to claim the green jacket last season. Always a contender, Garcia enters Thursday’s opening round knowing not only that he can top a major tournament field, but that — at least in theory — he’s the man to catch when the tournament tees off.

Garcia had grown into the role of “Best to Never Win a Major” over the last decade. He inherited it from a crowd favorite at Augusta who now has five majors to his name.

Phil Mickelson isn’t getting any younger, but he still has the game to win at Augusta and should have the confidence thanks to an early season victory in Mexico. “Lefty” is always prone to drama and has often played his way right out of victory by taking risks, but his legendary short game routinely grants him short putts on the treacherous greens that usually put an end to good rounds.

On the other side of “Best to Never…,” the leader in the clubhouse for that moniker now falls to Rickie Fowler.

The 29-year-old has eight career tour wins. More impressively, he has recorded a top-five finish in all four majors, including runner-up showings in both the U.S. and British Opens. Fowler has become a fan favorite and has been one of the most recognizable faces among the tidal wave of talented 20-somethings that has been taking over in recent years.

In that young crowd, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Jon Rahm are all candidates to have a big week and run away with a Masters title. All are nearly unbeatable when hitting the ball well, and it shows as they rank second, third and fourth in the world, respectively.

That trio is looking up at world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who has to be eager to get to the first tee at Augusta after being the prohibitive favorite in 2017, only to withdraw before the tournament began due to injury.

And then there’s that guy who might spend Sunday putting up numbers as red as the shirt on his back.

Following multiple setbacks in a nearly five-year-long recovery from numerous ailments and surgeries, Tiger Woods has looked perfectly healthy since returning to competitive play in December. While Woods still has yet to claim a trophy in his comeback and hasn’t competed in the Masters since 2015, he has shown the ability to grind and the flashes of high drama that once made him the best in the world.

Rarely have so many dominant golfers all entered a single Masters while playing near the top of their respective games. History tells us Augusta National is impossible to tame and that even some of the favorites are bound to run off the tracks, but the sheer quality from so many in the field makes it a near guarantee that Saturday and Sunday will be filled with roars from the crowd as superstar after superstar takes their swings at a green jacket.

All of this talk of parity among great players has me nervous about picking a winner, but I’ll take my best shot.

The young guns of the tour aren’t going away any time soon. And come Sunday, they’ll have a member with two major championship trophies currently on his mantle when Justin Thomas takes home his first green jacket.

Mike Anthony is a sports reporter for The Statesboro Herald. You can reach him at manthony@statesboroherald.com.

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