'My overall game has been good in the past weeks. I'm looking forward to performing well and hopefully
I'll make the cut.' Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand
WHEN next week's edition of the US Masters tees off, this year's first major will be missing a player who had his greatest victory at Augusta back in 1997 in a record-breaking performance where he won the tournament by 12 strokes. Tiger Woods, who went on to win again in 2001, 2002 and 2005, withdrew from the 2014 tournament recently as a result of back problems - a herniated disc was pressing against a nerve, causing pain and spasms. This week saw him undergo surgery for a pinched nerve, meaning that the world number one will have to wait for an opportunity to add to his major haul of 14 victories and his first since the US Open back in 2008. It will also be the first time since 1995 that he has not played in the Augusta event.
A statement on his website stated, "Woods will begin intensive rehabilitation and soft-tissue treatment within a week. Healing and recovery times differ for each individual based on many physiological factors but Woods could begin chipping and putting, after assessment by his doctors, in three weeks."
Woods is not the only one suffering from injuries, with another two in the world's top 10 having faced discomfort in the past few weeks. Compatriot Phil Mickelson, who has won this tournament three times (2004, 2006 and 2010) and is hoping for another victory in another "even" year, is recovering from a pulled muscle in his side after pulling out of last week's Texas Open. The world number five, however, is currently competing in the Houston Open where he shot a first round four-under 68. This is the lead-up tournament to this year's US Masters: Mickelson has confirmed his participation at Augusta next week.
Australian Jason Day has come close to winning this championship. In 2011, the world number four came second and last year third, although with a recent spate of thumb and back injuries, the 26-year-old has been unable to compete in a strokeplay tournament for the past two months. He has, however, had a good start to the year by winning the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February and is a strong contender for another shot at the title at Augusta next week.
Defending champion and world number two Adam Scott arrived in Augusta earlier this week and is a favourite to make it back-to-back wins after a stellar performance at the Arnold Palmer Invitational where he finished third after shooting a scintillating first round of 62 and second round 68.
Rory McIlroy, the world number seven, is looking for his first win of the year. Following his success in December in the Australian Open, he has been close in 2014 finishing runner-up twice, in Abu Dhabi and the Honda Classic - and this weekend a strong performance at the Houston Open will provide further confidence for the Northern Irishman.
Like every year, there is a large mix of nationalities playing and this year's tournament is no different, consisting of 90 professionals and six amateurs, representing 21 countries overall. Other contenders to look out for include world number six Justin Rose. Although he was suffering from tendinitis in his right shoulder last month, the 2013 US Open winner is now fighting fit for a shot at the Masters title. Others in the running include Bubba Watson, who used a wedge out of the trees in spectacular fashion to win the 2012 title, world number eight Spaniard Sergio Garcia, who has enjoyed a resurgence in his career over the past few months, world number 11 Matt Kuchar, world number 10 Dustin Johnson, world number 13 youngster Jordan Spieth and world number 18 Keegan Bradley of the USA.
The Asian contingent next week consists of a handful of Korean and Japanese players including KJ Choi, YE Yang, Sang-Moon Bae, Chang-woo Lee and Hideki Matsuyama. Joining them is Thai professional Thongchai Jaidee, fresh from captaining his Asian team in the inaugural EurAsia Cup which was held at the end of March at the Glenmarie Golf & Country Club in Kuala Lumpur. The Europe versus Asia team event finished in a thrilling 10-all draw after Jaidee's Asia team won six singles matches on the final day, a wonderful comeback after a disappointing first day. His own performance throughout the event, which saw him defeating world number 14 Graeme McDowell in the final day singles, has boosted his confidence ahead of next week's first major of the year.
He tells BT in an email interview: "Yes, I was delighted by the result given that we were trailing by 0-5 on the first day. You know the team spirit was great and I would like to thank my team members who put on the show to finally level with the Europe Team." He adds: "Right now I'm full of confidence. The Masters is a tough tournament so the level I'm playing last week surely will help me a lot."
While he has no special routine preparation to work on before next week, he will be keeping his body fit and be practising regularly. "Discipline is the key. My overall game has been good in the past weeks. They're just as good as each other." He continues, "It's quite awhile ago that I played there last time. I'm not sure how to put in terms of strategy but surely I'm looking forward to performing well and hopefully I'll make the cut."
- The US Masters takes place at Augusta from April 10 to 13.