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A MASTERFUL PREVIEW

Sent on Sunday, March 15, 2015

With three players earning Masters Tournament invitations thanks to victories in 2015 PGA TOUR events; the number of players eligible to compete in the year's first major has swelled to 94.

The tournament winners who previously weren't in the Masters included three-time major winner Padraig Harrington, who two weeks ago won the Honda Classic in a playoff over rookie Daniel Berger. It was Harrington's first TOUR title since he captured the 2008 PGA Championship.

"I kind of found something in the mental game, which has been going wrong," Harrington, 43, said. "I really do believe in myself. I think I found that mental edge I've been lacking the last number of years."

The other winners earning invitations to Augusta National Golf Club were Brandt Snedeker, winner of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, and James Hahn, who will make his Masters debut after capturing the Northern Trust Open.

Interestingly, when they won their respective tournaments one week apart, Harrington and Hahn each were ranked 297th in the Official World Golf Ranking. Weird. But wonderful, as no matter how things might be going, one great week can turn things around -- and get a player a coveted Masters berth.

Many eyes will be on two players in particular when the Masters begins April 9. 

The first is Tiger Woods, the four-time champion, who hasn't been seen on TOUR since his withdrawal from the Farmer's Insurance Open when he tweaked his surgically repaired back. Soon after Woods, who has been struggling with scoring due to a suspect short game, announced he would not return to competition until he felt he could be competitive. This means there is a chance he could skip the Masters, which would make it two years in a row after he missed the 2014 edition to fix a bulging disc in his back.

The other player of note is world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who won the Open Championship and PGA Championship back-to-back last year -- the first player since Harrington won the same two events in '08 -- to capture consecutive majors. McIlroy, who also won the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship, will be gunning not only for his third straight major, but he also has a chance to complete the career Grand Slam.

Though he wasn't sharp in his first two PGA TOUR starts of 2015 -- after a victory and runner-up finish in two European starts -- McIlroy is gearing up for a run at a Green Jacket after finishing tied for eighth at Augusta last year. He's been on a bit of a roll with eight of his last 14 starts resulting in finishing first or second.

"People talk about momentum and talk about sort of riding it, but I think momentum and confidence are two very similar things in golf," said McIlroy, 25, of Northern Ireland. "If you're confident and you've had good performances, that confidence seems to carry on; and if you're happy with how practice goes, then you're obviously going to be confident going into tournaments. So that's sort of how I'm feeling right now, and try to keep that feeling for as long as I can."

Players currently not in the Masters still have a chance to qualify.

Any winner through the Shell Houston Open, April 2-5, not already in the field gets an invitation. As well as a player in the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking published during the week before the Masters.

Two more names to pay close attention to at this year’s Masters are Bubba Watson and Hideki Matsuyama.

Watson will arrive at Augusta National looking to defend his title and win a third Green Jacket. Winning back-to-back at the Masters is a tall order. In fact, it has only been accomplished on three occasions in the tournament’s 78-year history. The first to repeat as champion was Memorial host and founder, Jack Nicklaus in 1965 and 1966. The second and third of his record six Green Jackets. In 1989 and 1990, Sir Nick Faldo, the Memorial’s 2015 Tournament honoree, won the first and second of his three Masters titles. And last but not least, five-time Memorial Tournament winner, Woods backed up his second Masters win in 2001 with a three-stroke victory in 2002 over Retief Goosen.

Defending Memorial Tournament winner, Matsuyama will be making his fourth appearance at the Masters next month as he vies to become the first Japanese born player to win a Green Jacket. In his first trip to Augusta National in 2011, Matsuyama became the first amateur from Japan to win the prestigious Silver Cup as the tournament’s low amateur.


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