Masters 2017: Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth among favourites at Augusta after Dustin Johnson withdraws

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The quirky world of Augusta
Masters 2017 on the BBC
Venue: Augusta National Dates: 6-9 April
Coverage: Watch highlights of the first two days before live and uninterrupted coverage of the weekend's action on BBC Two and up to four live streams available online.
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Augusta National. The Green Jacket. Amen Corner. The manicured fairways. The blooming azaleas. Unmistakably, the Masters.

Golf's first major of the year is upon us, with the world's finest players making their annual pilgrimage to one of sport's most iconic venues.

The first tee shot will be hit at 13:00 BST on Thursday with a field of 94 men aiming to sink the winning putt come Sunday.

World number one Dustin Johnson and Northern Ireland's four-time major winner Rory McIlroy head the field in the year's first major.

What else do you need to know? Plenty. Here's the lowdown...

Who are the main contenders?

Plenty of people backed Dustin Johnson to win his first Green Jacket - but that was before the current world number one suffered a back injury the day before the tournament started, after a fall at his rented home.

Johnson tried to take part in the tournament, but walked off the first tee on Thursday without playing his shot and withdrew.

The American, 32, had been head and shoulders above his rivals over the past nine months, winnnig seven of the 17 tournaments he has played since claiming his first major at the US Open at Oakmont in June, racking up another seven top-10 finishes in the process.

Masters 2017: Top 10 world rankings

In Johnson's absence, Jordan Spieth will look to banish memories of last year's spectacular final-day collapse by winning his second Masters.

The American, 23, led by five shots as he approached the 10th at Augusta on the Sunday, only to dramatically drop six shots in three holes and allow England's Danny Willett to take advantage.

"No matter what happens at this year's Masters, whether I can grab the jacket back or I miss the cut or I finish 30th, it will be nice having this Masters go by," he said earlier this month.

"The Masters lives on for a year. It brings a non-golf audience into golf. And it will be nice once this year has finished to be brutally honest."

Spieth has dropped to sixth in the world rankings since his Masters meltdown, but did claim his first PGA Tour title since May when he won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am last month.

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Jordan Spieth's calamitous seven at the par-three 12th

World number three Jason Day will play at Augusta after pulling out of a recent tournament to spend time with his mother, who has been treated for lung cancer.

The Australian, 29, broke down in tears after withdrawing from the WGC Match Play a fortnight ago.

"There's been a lot of things go on this year that have been somewhat distracting to my golf," he said.

"Golf was the last thing that I was ever thinking about when this first came about. I'm in a much better place now.

"I feel happier to be on the golf course and enjoying myself out here a lot more than I was the last month or two."

Japan's Hideki Matsuyama is bidding to become the first Asian player to win the Masters, having risen to fourth in the world after a stellar finish to the 2016 season.

The 25-year-old ended last year with four victories in five tournaments - finishing second in the other - but has not been able to recapture the form in recent weeks.

"I'm really not hitting it as well as I would like, so whether or not my confidence level is where it should be, I'm not sure," said Matsuyama, who finished fifth in the 2015 Masters and shared seventh place last year.

Will McIlroy complete the 'Rory Slam'?

That is the question we have been asking since McIlroy won the 2014 Open Championship at Hoylake.

The Northern Irishman steps on to Augusta's first tee on Thursday (18:41 BST) aiming to become only the sixth man to win all four majors.

He is seeking a first Masters title following victories at the US Open, the Open Championship and the US PGA Championship.

Winning the Green Jacket would propel the 27-year-old into exalted company alongside Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Gene Sarazen, Gary Player and Ben Hogan.

And, after three consecutive top-10 finishes at Augusta, the world number two has made no secret that finally sealing victory is his main priority.

"I don't feel like I can fly under the radar anymore, but at the same time it has been nice to just go about my business and try to get ready for this tournament," McIlroy said.

"I've realised that the more I can get comfortable with this golf course and the club as a whole, the better.

"The more I can just play the golf course and almost make it seem like second nature to me, the better."

Money can't buy you memories - Willett

When the fourth home nations golfer followed in the footsteps of Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam to win the Masters, most expected it would be Rory McIlroy slipping into the iconic wool jacket.

Instead it was Danny Willett.

The Englishman, playing in only his second Masters, was three shots adrift of Spieth going into Sunday's final round last year, but was catapulted to victory thanks to a superb five-under-par 67 and the Texan's meltdown.

What made his triumph even more remarkable was his participation at Augusta had been in doubt.

His wife Nicole was due to give birth on the final day, with only the early arrival of baby Zachariah allowing him to play.

"It's going to be awesome to go back as defending champion," he said in BBC documentary When Danny Won the Masters.

"I can't wait to take part in all the things you get to take part in, the par three competition, the champion's dinner and see all the other people who've won that golf tournament who are still there to be able to enjoy it with you.

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Danny Willett's best shots as he won the Masters

"It is something that you can't buy in life. You can only earn and the fact that I've earned is going to be something pretty special."

However, Willett has since struggled to match his form over those four days at Augusta.

He rose to a career-high ranking of ninth in the world following his maiden major, but has dropped to 17th after managing just four top-10 finishes in the past 12 months.

"The game is not far away," said the 29-year-old Yorkshireman.

"Our run of form obviously has been nowhere near what it was last year and nowhere near what some of the other guys are playing."

Other UK hopes

Willett is one of a record 11 English players in the 94-strong field at Augusta, while Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are also represented.

McIlroy is the only Northern Irishman taking part, while Scotland's Sandy Lyle and Wales' Ian Woosnam make their annual return as former champions.

England's Justin Rose has been a regular top-10 finisher in golf's four majors over the past decade, but only has one victory at the 2013 US Open to show for his efforts.

He finished tied 10th at Augusta last year, his fourth top-10 finish at the Masters.

UK and Irish hopes
Paul Casey (Eng)Ross Fisher (Eng)
Matt Fitzpatrick (Eng)Tommy Fleetwood (Eng)
Scott Gregory (Eng)Tyrrell Hatton (Eng)
Russell Knox (Sco)Shane Lowry (Ire)
Sandy Lyle (Sco)Rory McIlroy (NI)
Justin Rose (Eng)Andy Sullivan (Eng)
Lee Westwood (Eng)Danny Willett (Eng)
Chris Wood (Eng)Ian Woosnam (Wal)

Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton and English amateur champion Scott Gregory are making their Masters debuts this week - no player has won the Masters on their debut since American Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.

Fleetwood, 26, was ranked 188th in the world in September 2016, but has climbed to career-high 32nd after returning to former coach Alan Thompson and employing friend Ian Finnis as his caddie.

"One of the greatest accomplishments I've had in my career was actually qualifying for the Masters," said Fleetwood.

Gregory, a 22-year-old from Hampshire, secured his place by winning the British Amateur Championship last summer.

His preparations have included watching hours of footage from the past four tournaments at Augusta.

"I've watched a lot of clips on YouTube," he told BBC South Today.

American players aim to regain dominance

Willett's surprise success ended a long European drought at Augusta, becoming the continent's first winner since Jose Maria Olazabal's success 17 years previously.

This year, American players will be hoping to regain their recent dominance.

Ten of the previous 16 winners have been home players, with Johnson and Spieth leading the charge alongside fellow top-15 players Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler and Patrick Reed.

And rule out left handers Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson at your peril.

Between them the veteran pair have five Green Jackets hung up in their wardrobes - three for Mickleson and two for Watson - and are still loitering around the world's top 20.

"I always think I have a chance," said 38-year-old Watson, who has won just one PGA Tour title in nearly two years.

Strong winds and cool temperatures have been forecast on Thursday and Friday, conditions which 46-year-old Mickelson believes will play into his hands.

"I hope to rely on that knowledge and skill to keep myself in it heading into the weekend where players less experienced with the golf course will possibly miss it in the wrong spots and shoot themselves out," said the world number 18.

Recent Masters winners
2016: Danny Willett (Eng)2011: Charl Schwartzel (SA)
2015: Jordan Spieth (US)2010: Phil Mickelson (US)
2014: Bubba Watson (US)2009: Angel Cabrera (Arg)
2013: Adam Scott (Aus)2008: Trevor Immelman (SA)
2012: Bubba Watson (US)2007: Zach Johnson (US)

Where is Tiger?

Twenty years ago at Augusta, Tiger Woods memorably blitzed his way to a first major, the first step towards his impending global superstardom.

But the 41-year-old will not be marking the special anniversary by walking the fairways after pulling out this week through injury.

The 14-time major winner, who has been plagued by injury problems in recent years, said he is not "tournament ready" to tee up at an event with which he is synonymous.

The American went on to wear the Green Jacket on another three occasions - 2001, 2002 and 2005 - but has not been able to play in two of the past three tournaments because of long-running back problems.

"I did about everything I could to play at this year's Masters," he said.

"I'm especially upset because it's a special anniversary for me that's filled with a lot of great memories.

"I have no timetable for my return, but I will continue my diligent effort to recover, and want to get back out there as soon as possible."

Woods has only played twice this year, missing the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open in January and withdrawing from the following week's Dubai Desert Classic before the second round.

Tiger Woods
Woods is the youngest ever Masters champion, triumphing aged 21 years, 3 months and 14 days in 1997

Augusta plan tribute to 'The King'

This year's tournament will be tinged with sadness - but also a cause for celebration - as Augusta pays its own tribute to the man who won four Masters titles and was fondly known as 'The King' in golfing circles.

Arnold Palmer, viewed as one of the greatest and most influential players in the sport's history, died at the age of 87 in September.

"His presence at Augusta National will be sorely missed, but his impact on the Masters remains immeasurable - and it will never wane," said Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National, shortly after his death.

Where the Masters will be won or lost

Augusta National's Amen Corner
One of the most ominous yet anticipated stretch of holes in golf

Seeing the sign pointing towards Amen Corner can strike fear into the minds of even the world's best golfers.

Amen Corner, a term coined by legendary sports writer Herbert Warren Wind in 1958, geographically refers to the approach to the par-four 11th, all of the short 12th and the first half of the par-five 13th but many tend to think of it as all three holes in their entirety.

"If you can get through those in level par you're a happy man," says BBC golf commentator Ken Brown.

The 11th hole at Augusta
The 11th has overtaken the 10th in recent years as Augusta's most testing. A wind that is difficult to judge and a pond to the left of the green means the 505-yard par four, which has been lengthened by 45 yards since 2002, ranks as Augusta's all-time most difficult hole
The 12th at Augusta
The par-three 12th is one of the most cherished holes in golf. Unpredictable winds, Rae's Creek, a shallow green... players stride across Hogan Bridge hoping to have avoided serious damage on Augusta's shortest hole
The 13th tee
The 13th tee offers a rare moment of solitude for Masters hopefuls, on the furthest part of the course from the patrons. The 510-yard par five is the final hole of Amen Corner - but, unlike its unforgiving predecessors, offers a good eagle chance

If Jordan Spieth had got through those holes in level par in the final round last year then he, and not Danny Willett, would have won the Green Jacket.

The Texan appeared to be cruising towards becoming only the fourth man to win back-to-back Masters, leading by five shots as he approached the 10th.

But he twice found the water on the iconic 12th to card a quadruple bogey seven - following successive bogeys on the 10th and 11th holes - to hand the advantage to Willett.

Spieth was not the first Masters contender to see their dreams fade on the back nine on the final day, with Greg Norman in 1996 and Rory McIlroy in 2011 immediately springing to mind.

One suspects he won't be the last...

Augusta National scorecard (ranking for all-time difficulty in brackets)
1Tea Olive, par 4, 445 yards (4)10Camellia, par 4, 495 yards (2)
2Pink Dogwood, par 5, 575 yards (16)11White Dogwood, par 4, 505 yards (1)
3Flowering Peach, par 4, 350 yards (14)12Golden Bell, par 3, 155 yards (13)
4Flowering Crab Apple, par 3, 240 yards (5)13Azalea, par 5, 510 yards (15)
5Magnolia, par 4, 455 yards (6)14Chinese Fir, par 4, 440 yards (12)
6Juniper, par 3, 180 yards (11)15Firethorn, par 5, 530 yards (18)
7Pampas, par 4, 450 yards (3)16Redbud, par 3, 170 yards (10)
8Yellow Jasmine, par 5, 570 yards (17)17Nandina, par 4, 440 yards (9)
9Carolina Cherry, par 4, 460 yards (7)18Holly, par 4, 465 yards (8)

Why the 'Green Jacket'?

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods (2001 & 2002) is one of only three men - following Jack Nicklaus (1965 & 1966) and Nick Faldo (1989 & 1990) - to win successive Green Jackets

Although the Masters began in 1934, the victorious golfer did not receive a Green Jacket until Sam Snead triumphed in 1949.

However, Augusta members had worn the coloured coats since 1937, encouraged by co-founder Clifford Roberts, so patrons could easily identify "a source of reliable information".

Once Snead received his Green Jacket, the coat became a symbol of success - and is now one of the most iconic prizes in sport.

Winners are allowed to take the jacket home for a year and are rather generously allowed to wear the single-breasted, lightweight jacket "in public during that time on special occasions".

After that, past champions have a custom-tailored coat waiting for them on their return to the Augusta clubhouse.

"It felt like my old friend was back on my shoulders," said 2013 champion Adam Scott when he returned a year later.

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Green Jacket origins 'in Liverpool'

How to follow on the BBC (all times BST)

Wednesday 5 April: 2017 Preview, BBC Two (national and regional times vary)

Thursday 6 April: The Masters Live, BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, 22:00-01:00

Friday 7 April: The Masters Live, BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, 22:00-01:00

Saturday 8 April: The Masters Live, BBC Two, 19:30-00:00 and BBC Radio 5 live, 21:00-01:00

Sunday 9 April: The Masters Live, BBC Two, 18:30-00:00 and BBC Radio 5 live, 20:00-01:00

Live text commentary with analysis and social media on the BBC Sport website from 12:45 on Thursday and Friday and from 16:00 on Saturday and Sunday.

Full details of the BBC's extensive coverage from Augusta

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