Tiger Woods says he was "sore" but "right where I need to be" after making a promising start to his astonishing comeback at The Masters.

It was feared the 15-time major champion's incredible career would be over when he suffered serious leg and foot injuries in a car accident in February 2021.

Yet just over 13 months later, the legendary American was teeing off in the first major of the season at Augusta and was just three shots off the lead when he signed for a one-under 71.

At the famous course where he won the green jacket five times, Woods made three birdies and two bogeys in a promising return.

Sungjae Im was at the top of the leaderboard on five under through 15 holes, with Dustin Johnson a shot adrift of the South Korean along with Cameron Smith, who started and finished with a double bogey as he went round in 68.

The 46-year-old Woods says it feels like a victory just to be playing this week and is ready to go through the pain barrier in Georgia, where he was given such great support on Thursday.

He said: "I am as sore as I expected to feel, but it was amazing to have - like I was telling the team all week, come game time, it will be a different deal.

"My adrenaline will kick in. I'll get into my own little world, and I'll get after it. It's about the training that we've done to have the stamina to go.

"I'm going to be sore, yes. That's just the way it is. But the training cycles that we've had to make sure that I have the stamina to keep going -- and this is only one round. We've got three more to go. There's a long way to go and a lot of shots to be played."

Woods revealed that his pre-round preparation had not gone to plan.

"I had a terrible warm-up session," he said. "I hit it awful. I went back to what my dad always said. Did you accomplish your task in the warm-up? It's a warm-up. Did you warm-up?

"Yes, I did. Now go play. That's exactly what I did, I went and played."

"I forgot whatever I did on the range and just go ahead and play shot for shot, hit the ball in the correct spot, commit to what I'm doing, leave myself in the right angles, hopefully make a few putts, and let's get after this thing. Yeah, I was able to do that.

"I was able to finish up in the red. I'm only three back. I'm right where I need."

The former world number one, who could have lost a leg following his car accident last year, had more work to do after such an encouraging opening round.

He added: "Lots of treatments. Lots of ice. Lots of ice baths. Just basically freezing myself to death. That's just part of the deal. And getting all the swelling out as best as we possibly can and getting it mobile and warmed up, activated and explosive for the next day. Those are two totally different ends of the spectrum.

"Most sports, if you're not feeling very good, you got a team-mate to pass it off to, and they can kind of shoulder the load. Or in football, one day a week. Here we've got four straight days, and there's no one that's going to shoulder the load besides me. I've got to figure out a way to do it.

"My team's been incredible at getting me into this position so that I can compete. I'll take it from there. I know how to play. I've just got to get out there where I can play."

Tiger Woods made an impressive start to his sensational Masters return before Dustin Johnson joined Cameron Smith in a share of the lead at Augusta.

Woods declared himself fit to make an incredible comeback at Augusta on Thursday, just over 13 months after suffering serious leg and foot injuries in a car accident.

The 15-time major champion did not resemble a player whose career could have been over last year as he carded a one-under 71 in his first competitive round for 508 days.

Woods was in a share of ninth place when he holed a putt for par at 18 following a wayward tee shot as he made up for lost time in Georgia, where he was given magnificent support from packed galleries.

The five-time winner of the green jacket went out in 36 after a brilliant tee shot gave him a simple task of rolling in a short birdie putt at the par-three sixth, before a first bogey at the eighth.

Legendary American Woods made further gains at holes 13 and 16 following a second dropped shot at 14, looking like he had never been away in a promising opening round.

Smith started and finished with a double bogey as he signed for a four-under 68.

The Australian had been three shots clear, but sliced his tee shot way at the last to the right, undoing some of the good work after making eight birdies.

World number one Scottie Scheffler joined Smith on four under when he made a fourth birdie at the penultimate hole, but bogeyed 18 to join Danny Willett and Joaquin Niemann one stroke off the pace.

Johnson ominously moved into a share of the lead with Smith when he made a fourth birdie of the day at the 10th under blue skies.

There were roars at Augusta National when Tiger Woods saved par at the first hole of the Masters on his sensational return.

Woods has defied the odds to make his comeback this week after recovering from the serious leg and foot injuries he sustained in a car accident in February 2021.

The 15-time major champion was given an incredible ovation at the first tee in Georgia on Thursday after a delay to the start of the tournament due to thunderstorms.

Woods, a winner of the green jacket on five occasions, most recently in 2019, sent his tee shot just short of a bunker to the right of the fairway and had work to do following his approach.

The legendary American chipped his third shot 10 feet from the hole and looked like he had never been away as he rolled in a putt for par.

Padraig Harrington hit the turn at the top of the leaderboard on one under along with the likes of Tommy Fleetwood, Daniel Berger, Harry Higgs and Max Homa.

Defending champion Hideki Matsuyama also made par at the opening hole, but there was a double-bogey for the well fancied Cameron Smith.

Englishman Paul Casey will not win a maiden major this weekend, as he withdrew due to injury.

Masters and Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley says Phil Mickelson was not "disinvited" from the first major of the year.

Six-time major winner Mickelson in February revealed he was taking a hiatus following the backlash to his comments promoting a Saudi Arabia-backed Super Golf League. 

The 51-year-old American had suggested that although Saudi Arabia has "a horrible record on human rights", the threat of the potential breakaway competition could be used to "reshape how the PGA Tour operates".

Mickelson subsequently apologised for making "reckless" comments.

There will be no fourth Masters title for the San Diego native this week, as he is not in the field in Georgia. 

Ridley on Wednesday denied that Mickelson's absence is because he is not welcome.

He said in a press conference: "I would like to say we did not disinvite Phil. Phil is a three-time Masters Champion and is invited in that category and many other categories; he's the defending PGA Champion. 

"Phil reached out to me, I think it was in late February, early March, and let me know that he did not intend to play. That was by way of a text. 

"And I thanked him for his courtesy in letting me know.  I told him that we certainly appreciated that and, you know, told him that I was certainly willing to discuss that further with him if he'd like, and he thanked me, and we had a very cordial exchange."

While Ridley says it will be strange not to see Mickelson tee off on Thursday, he is naturally delighted that Tiger Woods' is set to make a sensational comeback.

"Well, certainly not anything we anticipated. I think in Phil's case, he made a personal decision, and I don't know anything beyond that," Jacobs said.

"I know that Phil has been a real fixture here at the Masters for many, many years. He's been a big part of our history. I certainly and we certainly wish him the best sort of working through the issues he's dealing with right now. 

"As it relates to Tiger, it's just truly amazing. I don't even know how else to say it. I would have probably taken some pretty high odds a few weeks or a few months ago, even a few weeks ago, whether or not he would be here. 

"But when you think about it, it really shouldn't surprise us. He is one of the most determined, dedicated athletes that I have ever seen in my life. 

"I saw him out last Tuesday when he was out practising, was in great spirits and had Charlie [his son] with him. It was interesting yesterday in his press conference, he said the only really issue is walking; that his golf swing's fine. So who knows what might happen this week, but we are excited he's here."

A victory in a major "catapults you into another realm", so says Tiger Woods ahead of his remarkable comeback at the Masters.

Woods, who has not featured in a competition since he played at Augusta National in November 2020, is making an unexpected return to top-level golf just over a year after suffering serious leg and foot injuries in a car crash in California.

The 46-year-old completed an incredible comeback tale in 2019 when he won a fifth green jacket at the Masters, taking his number of major victories to 15, after returning from spinal surgery.

Woods is returning to Augusta 25 years after winning his first major at the famous Georgia course. Since then, no other player has won more of the big four tournaments than the American.

And Woods explained how a victory in a major sends a golfer into a "different league".

Woods told Sky Sports: "They're the four biggest events that we have in our sport. To win one, it catapults you into another realm and into a different league of respect from your peers.

"The players that have won major championships and especially those who have won multiple understand how difficult it is.

"All of us can have hot weeks, right, so if you time it up right and win a major championship, that's great. But the guys who have won multiples, it takes you into a different realm and different respect from your peers."

 

Only the great Jack Nicklaus (six) has won the Masters more times than Woods (five), who is also the youngest player to don the green jacket, at the age of 21 years and 104 days.

If he wins the tournament for a record-equalling sixth time, he will overtake Nicklaus as the oldest player to win it.

Asked what state of mind it takes to win a major when it comes to the final round, Woods said: "If you've got a chance to be there with a chance to win, that means you’re playing well, you're not slapping it all over the place.

"To be in that position, a lot of things have had to go right, you should have an understanding of what you're capable of doing, then it's just getting a feel for what is going to be needed, what that score is going to be.

"It's about getting a feel for what is needed. The hard part is going out and executing it and getting it done."

The Masters is the only major in which Woods has always made the cut as a professional (21 out of 21). He has secured a top-five finish in 12 of those appearances.

Woods is also the last player to win the Masters in successive seasons, doing so in 2001 and 2002. The only other golfers to have achieved the feat are Nicklaus (1965-1966) and Nick Faldo (1989-1990). 

Peaking too soon is a problem for every golf season, for the Masters at Augusta – the first major of the year – is what the sport is all about.

The greatest names have embarked on Georgia in pursuit of a prized green jacket.

But to enjoy a successful Sunday this week, players must get to grips with perhaps the biggest star of them all: the iconic course itself.

Augusta is what makes the Masters the Masters, so Stats Perform breaks down where one of the most prestigious tournaments sport might be won and lost.

LONGEST HOLE

At 575 yards, the par-five second hole – Pink Dogwood – is the longest on the course, but that does not mean it is the toughest, instead offering some respite following the tricky first.

Historically, number two has been played in 4.78 strokes on average, making it the third-easiest hole at Augusta in relation to par. In fact, the lowest average on record came in 2020 (4.467) – and that was not a mere quirk of the strange conditions around the course in recent years without the usual crowds, given the highest average, in 1957, was 4.996. Yep, the second has never played at even par or worse.

SHORTEST HOLE

Skill rather than strength is required to negotiate Redbud, the 170-yard, par-three 16th. Considered too easy in the tournament's early days, the installation of a pond added some peril – and plenty of drama. With three bunkers around the green, too, the tee shot has to be pretty perfect or something spectacular will be required to come up with a birdie, as Tiger Woods will attest. "In your life, have you seen anything like that?"

Unsurprisingly, though, given its length, the 16th is also the setting for the vast majority of the Masters' holes-in-one. Of the 33 in tournament history, 23 have come at Redbud, including the first from amateur Ross Somerville at the inaugural tournament in 1934 but also 16 since the turn of the century. The last came courtesy of Tommy Fleetwood in 2021.

HARDEST HOLE

Think of Augusta and you will likely quickly focus on Amen Corner, but the most daunting challenge of all lies at the hole immediately prior: the par-four number 10 Camellia. Statistically, with a stroke average of 4.3 (0.3 over par), this is as tough as it gets – albeit only fractionally ahead of the 11th.

With its lowest stroke average 4.082 in 2018, the 10th has never played at even par or better... unless your name is Jordan Spieth. The 2015 Masters champion has a real knack around Camellia, with four birdies in four rounds last year. Few others have been able to follow Spieth's example at what was originally the first hole.

EASIEST HOLE

With the hardest hole followed by the second-ranked 11th and fourth-ranked 12th, there might be a sense of relief at Azalea, the par-five number 13 with a 4.77 stroke average. But there is very much a risk-reward approach to this 510-yard hole, at which the player can go for the green in two but must beware the water to the left and the trees to the right.

This is another set-up that suits Spieth well, as it does the absent Phil Mickelson, even if his most memorable shot at Azalea was not exactly an exhibition in playing the hole. An error created the opportunity for Mickelson's six-iron from the pine straw on Sunday in 2010.

THE RECORDS

The course record belongs to Nick Price and Greg Norman, who both shot 63s, but perhaps it should come as no surprise Spieth has the best career average of all players to play 25 or more rounds at Augusta, with his 70.46 leading Woods' 70.87.

That mark will come under threat should Dustin Johnson (71.03) produce anything like his sensational record-breaking 2020 performance again, however. Helped by carding only four bogeys – a low among Masters champions – Johnson's 20-under total of 268 trimmed two off the previous week-long benchmark owned jointly by Woods and Spieth.

Still, with Cameron Smith and Im Sung-jae 'only' five back, Woods' record winning margin of 12 strokes to Tom Kite in 1997 remained.

There is nothing in golf quite like The Masters.

Arguably the most prestigious of the majors, Augusta National becomes the centre of the sporting world once more over the weekend, as the famous green jacket goes up for grabs again.

In 1997, Tiger Woods won his first major when he triumphed in Georgia, and 25 years on he is set to make a sensational comeback from injury.

But Woods is not the only name to look out for.

 

The favourites

Let's start from the top. Scottie Scheffler is the world's new number one and he heads into the weekend on the back of three victories in his last five events, having not finished worse than T-19th in his six major appearances since 2020.

Scheffler said he has been resting up at home ahead of travelling to Augusta, where he joked he has already been brought down a peg or two.

He told Sky Sports: "I've been humbled a couple of times already, showing up here. The guy who picked me up in the cart this morning called me Xander, so that brought me down to earth real quick! It's been great, really looking forward to this week."

The Xander in question is Xander Schauffele. He finished T3 last year, three shots back from the champion Hideki Matsuyama, and was looking good on his final round until he sent a ball into the water on the 16th, but he won gold at the Tokyo Olympics and comes into the tournament in strong form.

Reigning champion Matsuyama cast doubt over his participation when he withdrew from the Texas Open with a neck problem, meanwhile, which may hinder his title defence.

 

Brooks Koepka has won four majors, but did not make the cut last year and will be out to put that right this time around, having defeated Jon Rahm in the WGC-Match Play last 16. 

Rahm has finished in the top 10 in each of his last four Masters appearances. However, the Spaniard has not won a tournament since triumphing in the US Open last year, but did secure a place in the top 10 in all four of last year's majors.

Dustin Johnson failed to make the cut in 2021 in a torrid title defence. He had dropped out of the top 10 up until an impressive performance at the WGC-Match Play moved him up to number eight, and he'll be determined to rekindle the form that saw him clinch the green jacket in 2020.

Viktor Hovland is ranked fourth in the world, though his weak chipping game may prove costly to his chances at Augusta, while Collin Morikawa cannot be discounted for a third major title and Justin Thomas will be out to win a second major having won the US PGA Championship in 2017.

 

The outsiders

Augusta is where golfers can shoot to stardom over the course of four spectacular days, and there will be plenty of the field who fancy their chances despite not being among the bookmakers' favourites.

One such player capable of a challenge is Cameron Smith. The Australian is ranked at a career-high six, won the Players' Championship last month and has finished inside the top 10 in three of the last four Masters.

Will Zalatoris, meanwhile, comes into the weekend with the best SG (strokes gained, which compares a player's score to the field average) tee-to-green* statistics on the PGA Tour this season, with his 1.767 average just edging out Thomas, and he came second on his Masters debut in 2021.

Zalatoris only has one pro win to his name so far but the 25-year-old has largely impressed at the majors. He finished T2 in 2021 at Augusta and T8 in last year's PGA Championship, while recording a T6 finish in the 2020 US Open.

Rory McIlroy's Masters record is frustrating. It is the only major the former world number one has not yet won. He finished in the top 10 six times between 2014 and 2020 before missing the cut last year, and now he'll have another stab at sealing a career Grand Slam, though his best finish this season has been third in the Dubai Desert Classic.

 

Only five players have previously completed a clean sweep of the majors, and McIlroy has not won one of the big four events since 2014.

Russell Henley will feature for the first time since 2018 after 12 top 10 finishes in the past year, and he has finished in the top 25 at Augusta three times, while Bryson DeChambeau is going to compete despite missing a chunk of the season with a hip problem. He finished T46 on three-over-par in 2021.

Marc Leishman finished fifth a year ago, improving on T13 from 2020, and Sergio Garcia will at least hope to make the cut for the first time since he won in 2017. Perhaps if the Spaniard can just make the weekend, he can go all the way again?

 

The return of the king

As far as comeback stories go in sport, Woods has already provided one of the very best.

In 2019, against all odds following years of back issues and surgery to fix the problems, Woods won The Masters for a fifth time in his illustrious career, taking his total of major victories to 15. He trails only Jack Nicklaus in that regard.

But this comeback might just top the lot.

The 46-year-old admitted he cheated death in a major single-car crash in February 2021, which left him with serious leg and foot injuries. Woods was unable to walk unaided for several months and has not played serious golf since, but he is all set for a remarkable return on the biggest stage of them all.

It will be his first appearance in any tournament since he played at Augusta in November 2020. Since winning his maiden major a quarter of a century ago, Woods has claimed nine more major titles than any other player, while he is one of only three players to win successive Masters titles (2001 and 2002).

Woods has never failed to make the cut in 21 appearances, and even if he does not challenge at the top of the leaderboard this time around (though you would not put it past him) his comeback is already the story of the weekend.

 

Bryson DeChambeau is thrilled to see Tiger Woods back and ready to feature at The Masters, though he is unsure just quite how the 15-time major winner has overcome adversity once again.

Woods, who remarkably won the Masters in 2019 after coming back from spinal surgery, suffered serious leg and foot injuries in a car crash in California in February 2021.

The 46-year-old was unsure if he would ever play professionally again yet, 14 months after the accident, he is set to make a remarkable return to action at Augusta National, where he won his maiden major title in 1997.

It will be the first competitive action for Woods since he competed at The Masters in November 2020.

DeChambeau, who is overcoming his own injury issues to feature in the season's first major, is delighted to have Woods back on the course.

And while the big-driving American is unsure just how Woods has managed to come back, he has tipped the five-time Masters champion to make a bid for glory.

"Its great to see his face. I mean, I was walking down, I was teeing off on 3, and he was walking down 17. He just, like, jumped up and raised up, and we were both kind of air high fiving, like saying, 'what's up'," DeChambeau told a news conference.

"It's just great to see him in a positive frame of mind. I haven't spoken to him much, but I have seen him and it seems likes he's in a really great frame of mind and he wants to win.

"Obviously, he's determined to win. He wants to come back here and win. Tiger is Tiger, and you can never count him out. He is one that may shock a lot of people if he does tee it up this week.

"Very, very excited to have him back. Creates a lot of hype and, shoot, from the driving range, we could hear the loud roar when he came out of the clubhouse up to that first tee, and that was pretty special to see or hear at least.

"I couldn't be happier for him in the place he's at right now, coming back, and proud of him, too. Shoot, coming back off that injury, we've had some conversations, and man, I don't know how he's done it. It's very impressive."

While DeChambeau is looking to make a vast improvement on his T46 finish at Augusta from last year, Jon Rahm heads into the tournament aiming to add a second major title to his collection, having recently lost the world number one ranking to Scottie Scheffler.

But the Spaniard, too, has not failed to get caught up in the excitement of Woods' return.

"You can feel it. A lot of it is Tiger," Rahm said when asked about the excitement surrounding the build-up at Augusta. "I was playing with Tony Finau on the front nine yesterday. We were about four or five holes ahead, we were on 7, and they [Tiger's group] were walking down on 2, and I've never seen a mass this big, even on a Sunday in contention, on those two holes.

"It feels like this Monday they allowed way more people to come in just because the last two years had limited invitations, COVID, and what everybody has gone through. More people wanted to come out, then Tiger's playing, so a lot more people are coming out Monday trying to see him. It's a combination of things, I think.

"There's a lot more electricity in the air in that sense, and you have Tiger being there, yeah. Monday felt like a Saturday in a regular event."

Woods has been grouped with Louis Oosthuizen and Joaquin Niemann for the first round on Thursday.

Rory McIlroy described Tiger Woods' return at The Masters as a "wonderful thing" after the 15-time major winner confirmed his planned participation at Augusta.

Woods is set to make a sensational bid for a sixth green jacket this week, playing competitively for the first time since failing to defend his 2019 Masters title in November 2020.

The 46-year-old suffered serious leg and foot injuries in a car crash in February 2021. He was unable to walk unaided for several months.

However, after practicing at Augusta this week, Woods said on Tuesday: "As of right now I feel like I'm going to play."

Asked if he thought he could win the Masters, Woods - who has been grouped with Joaquin Niemann and Louis Oosthuizen - replied: "I do."

McIlroy is looking to complete a career Grand Slam by finally ending his wait for a first Masters title, but he unsurprisingly faced questions on Woods' return.

"Tiger has been wonderful for us all in this room. He creates attention on the game of golf that no one else can," McIlroy replied when asked if he would be surprised if Woods was still in contention on Sunday. 

"That's great for his peers. It's great for the media. It's great for this golf club. It's great for everyone. So, any time Tiger Woods is involved, it's a wonderful thing.

"I think in terms of the competitive nature of it, if he's in the field or not, I don't think it really changes much. You're trying to focus on yourself, and he can't stop you shooting a 67 if you play well. It's not like any other sport. So, I don't think that changes much.

"But would I be -- I wouldn't be surprised. I've spent a little bit of time with him at home, and the golf is there. He's hitting it well. He's chipping well. He's sharp. It's just the physical demand of getting around 72 holes here this week. That's probably the question mark. But the golf game is there. So, would I be surprised? No, I'm not surprised at anything he does anymore."

On whether the hype around Woods makes it easier to fly under the radar, McIlroy replied: "I mean, I try to shield myself from as much news as possible, especially this week. So not really, depending on whether you're the centre of attention or not.

"I think it does make it nice with the practice rounds. We were on the ninth green when Tiger and J.T. [Justin Thomas] and Freddie [Fred Couples] teed off yesterday [Monday], and it was a mass exodus from the ninth green to the first tee, and then the back nine was lovely and quiet.

"That's a nice way to get through the first week and sort of go about your preparation, I guess, unhindered."

Tiger Woods has no doubt he can win The Masters for a sixth time as the legendary American prepares to make another sensational comeback.

Woods was unable to walk unaided for several months and has not played competitive golf since he sustained serious leg and foot injuries in a car crash in February 2021.

The 46-year-old was unsure if he would ever return to the top level but, extraordinarily, he is all set to make a remarkable comeback at Augusta National this week.

Woods, who won his first Masters title in Georgia 25 years ago, confirmed in a news conference on Tuesday that he feels ready to make a first appearance in a tournament since he played in the 2020 Masters.

While he will reassess after another nine holes of practice on Wednesday, Woods has firm belief that he can go on to win the title once again, having taken the green jacket in 2019 after recovering from serious back problems.

"I do," he replied when asked if he believed he could win at Augusta again.

He expanded: "I can hit it just fine. I don't have any qualms about what I can do physically from a golf standpoint. It's now walking is the hard part.

"This is normally not an easy walk to begin with. Now given the conditions that my leg is in, it gets even more difficult.

"You know, 72 holes is a long road, and it's going to be a tough challenge and a challenge that I'm up for."

 

Explaining the process of being in a position to make his comeback, Woods said: "I've worked hard. My team has been unbelievable. I've been lucky to have great surgeons and great PTs and physios that have worked on me virtually every day.

"We've worked hard to get to this point, to get to this opportunity to walk the grounds, test it out, and see if I can do this.

"It's been a tough, tough year and a lot of stuff that I had to deal with that I don't wish on anyone, but here we are, Masters week. Being able to play and practice -- for me, more importantly, just to say thank you to all the guys that have texted me, FaceTimed me, and called me and given me all their support, to see them in person and to say thank you has meant a lot.

"It's just a matter of what my body's able to do the next day and the recovery. That's the hard part. Yes, we push it and try and recover the best we possibly can that night and see how it is the next morning.

"Then all the activations and going through that whole process again, and you warm it up, and then you warm it back down, or test it out, and then you've got to cool it back down. Then you've got to do that day in and day out."

Asked about his motivation to return, Woods – who has never missed the cut in 21 appearances at Augusta – replied: "I love competing, and I feel like if I can still compete at the highest level, I'm going to, and if I feel like I can still win, I'm going to play. But if I feel like I can't, then you won't see me out here.

"I think that the fact that I was able to get myself here to this point is a success, and now that I am playing, now that everything is focused on how do I get myself into the position where I'm on that back nine on Sunday with a chance? Just like I did a few years ago.

"I never left that hospital bed even to see my living room for three months. So that was a tough road. To finally get out of that where I wasn't in a wheelchair or crutches and walking and still had more surgeries ahead of me, to say that I was going to be here playing and talking to you guys again, it would have been very unlikely."

After two years of disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, things are back to normal at Augusta National for this year's much-anticipated Masters – though choosing a winner is as tough as ever.

Dustin Johnson won the delayed 2020 event with a record score after it was pushed back by seven months from its usual slot, while Hideki Matsuyama made history of his own last year by becoming the first Japanese male to win a major.

Matsuyama's triumph was a memorable one, albeit with only a limited number of patrons present in Georgia due to social distancing measures being in place, though the build-up to his title defence has been far from ideal as he continues to battle a back injury.

Golf's elite can look forward to the return of spectators for the 86th edition of the most prestigious tournament of them all – and if excitement was not already at fever pitch, Augusta could also see the return of Tiger Woods, who has not played on the PGA Tour since November 2020 after being involved in a car accident.

But exactly who is best placed to claim the green jacket in the first major of the year? The expert team at Stats Perform have a go at answering that question ahead of the tee off on Thursday.

RAHM TO ADD TO US OPEN SUCCESS – Daniel Lewis

Despite being usurped by Scottie Scheffler at the top of the Official World Golf Ranking after an admittedly slow start to the year, Jon Rahm remains the man to beat heading into the Masters. The 27-year-old has posted top-four finishes in each major, while also finishing inside the top 10 in each of his last five participations. Following his success at the US Open at Torrey Pines 10 months ago, this is Rahm's time to shine at Augusta. 

SMITH TO GO ONE BETTER THAN 2020 – Patric Ridge

Less than a month on from his triumph at the Players' Championship, world number six Cameron Smith seems well placed to go on and seal a maiden major triumph. The Australian finished T2 at Augusta in 2020, albeit five strokes back from Johnson. But he comes into this tournament ranked higher than ever before in his career, and the 28-year-old has won two of the five events he has featured in this year. A T10 placing in last year's Masters will have been a disappointment, but Smith has the tools, and the form, to challenge this time around.

GOOD WILL HUNTING FOR GREEN JACKET – Peter Hanson

A year ago, you could be forgiven for not knowing a lot about Will Zalatoris. But the then 24-year-old finished just one stroke shy of eventual winner Matsuyama, and his clean ball striking will be a big advantage on a typically unforgiving Augusta course. Voted PGA Tour Rookie of the Year for 2021, Zalatoris has three top-10 finishes in 2022, including losing a play-off to Luke List at the Farmers Insurance Open. And how about this if you want more persuading: eight of the past 10 Masters champions were at 1.7 or better strokes gained tee to green in the three months leading into the Masters. Zalatoris is one of eight players who meet that criteria heading into the 2022 instalment.

DON'T BE A-DOUBTING THOMAS, BACK JUSTIN – John Skilbeck

Until his challenged fizzled out over the weekend last year, when he went from only three shots back to finish tied for 21st place, Justin Thomas was following a trajectory that seemed sure to lead to Masters glory. His record showed year-on-year progress, going from a tie for 39th in 2016, to a tie for 22nd a year later, then tied 17th in 2017, tied 12th in 2019, and fourth outright in 2020. Amid this, he won the 2017 US PGA Championship, and Thomas is too good a player to sit too long on just one major. He has the second-lowest scoring average this season on the PGA Tour, has three top-10 finishes in the past two months, and Augusta practice rounds with his great friend Tiger Woods can hardly have hindered his cause.

TIGER... JUST IMAGINE! – Russell Greaves

Lazarus was a one-trick pony, but if Woods were to win the Masters again it would constitute the second bona fide sporting miracle of his remarkable career. Woods' triumph in 2019 – his fifth at Augusta National – was his 15th major success, coming 11 years after his previous one. He became only the third golfer over 40 to win a major on US soil, joining Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson. Now 46 and absent from competitive action since 2020 following his car accident, a win here would surpass anything Woods has ever achieved. He needs one more to equal Jack Nicklaus' six Masters titles, but would be putting a proud record on the line if he does choose to compete, as Woods has made the cut in each of his 21 appearances at this event.

Scottie Scheffler is still coming to terms with his new status as the number one golfer in the world after victory in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play final on Sunday.

The 25-year-old was still waiting on his first PGA Tour win at the start of February but has sensationally come out on top in three of his five entries since.

His latest triumph, secured with a 4 and 3 win over Kevin Kisner in Austin, made him the 25th man to lead the Official World Golf Ranking since its inception in 1986.

Scheffler moved to 3 up by the sixth hole and scarcely looked in trouble throughout, ultimately sinking a putt for par on the 15th to claim victory.

Displacing Spain's Jon Rahm at the summit and with his family watching on from the side, the American acknowledged afterwards he was yet to truly realise the magnitude of his new status.

"[It is] pretty cool to do that in front of my family," Scheffler said. "They've supported me so much along the way, and I really don't know what to say about that.

"I don't feel like number one in the world. I feel like the same guy I was four months ago, and I hope that doesn't change. Yeah, I don't feel any different."

Scheffler came second in last year's WGC Match Play, losing 2 and 1 to Billy Horschel in a painful defeat that has since played on his mind.

"[There was] definitely a lot of emotion coming off the green," he said. "It's been kind of a crazy past few months.

"I got my first win in Phoenix, and then I guess this is my third now, and golly, what a long week.

"I really don't know how to describe the emotion. I've thought about winning this tournament ever since last year.

"It left kind of a poor taste in my mouth, getting so close and ultimately coming up short. So it feels really good to finish the job this time around."

Scottie Scheffler is the new number one-ranked golfer in the world after defeating Kevin Kisner 4 and 3 in the WGC Match Play final on Sunday.

The 25-year-old American has dethroned Spain's Jon Rahm to become only the 25th man to hold the top spot on the Official World Golf Ranking since its inception in 1986.

It is Scheffler's third professional tour win of the season, after triumphs at the Phoenix Open last month and the Arnold Palmer Invitational three weeks ago.

Kisner, the Match Play champion in 2019 when he beat Matt Kuchar 3 and 2, struggled to best his opponent, who went 1up off the second tee and subsequently never relinquished his lead.

Scheffler, who saw off a Dustin Johnson fightback to win 3 and 1 in the semi-finals, built a commanding early advantage through the sixth hole, emerging 3up with a dozen to play,

Neither man was able to get the better of the other until the 14th hole, when Scheffler shot a smart birdie against Kisner's bogey to move four up with just four holes remaining.

It left Kisner needing to win on the 15th to keep the match going, but the 38-year-old could not force the game on, and with just two putts needed for the title, Scheffler made no mistake on the green.

Scheffler, who had ranked fifth in the world heading into the Match Play, becomes the ninth American to top the men's world rankings, and the first new USA native to rank first since Brooks Koepka in 2018.

Elsewhere, Johnson missed out on a podium finish as the two-time major champion went down 3 and 1 to Corey Conners.

The Canadian held his nerve from the 12th hole onwards after dropping back to a two-hole lead to claim third place on the 17th hole with a birdie.

Scottie Scheffler survived a spirited fightback from Dustin Johnson to win 3 and 1 and reach the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play final, where he will meet Kevin Kisner on Sunday.

Johnson made it past Brooks Koepka in a heavyweight last-16 clash on Saturday, but struggled in the early stages against world number five Scheffler at the Austin Country Club.

Scheffler produced three birdies in his opening four holes to go 3up and furthered his advantage on the eighth and 11th to take a five-shot lead.

Two-time major winner Johnson responded by claiming the next four holes – with Scheffler finding the water when inexplicably attempting to hit the green on the short par-four 13th – to tee up a thrilling finale.

Johnson then squandered a presentable birdie opportunity at the par-five 16th to fall two behind again before Scheffler secured victory on the following hole to reach his second consecutive Match Play final.

Victory in the final would also see Scheffler move to the top of the world rankings if he can defeat Kisner, who came out on top in a topsy-turvy clash with Corey Conners in the other semi-final.

The pair could not be separated as they repeatedly exchanged the lead through 16 holes before Kisner nudged ahead with a birdie on the penultimate hole as Conners pushed his putt wide in response.

Kisner, who lifted the Match Play trophy in 2019, delivered an expert chip with his second shot on the 18th to close out victory and ensure he remains in the hunt for the title.

Dustin Johnson got the best of Brooks Koepka in a heavyweight matchup to finish 2 up in their WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play quarter-final.

After Johnson got through Richard Bland and Koepka made it past Jon Rahm earlier on Saturday, the two former major champions went all 18 holes before Johnson won the last to turn 1 up into 2 up and avoid a playoff.

It was a great start for Koepka, winning two of the first three holes, but Johnson found his touch going into the seventh and went on to claim four holes and tie the rest from that point.

Scottie Scheffler passed his test against Seamus Power with flying colours, winning three and two with a strong back-nine.

Winning two holes apiece on the front nine, it was all Scheffler down the stretch, including winning the two par fives (holes 12 and 16) by two strokes to wrap things up with a couple holes to spare.

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