Masters 2018: How Augusta major is shaping up to be a classic

Ian Poulter celebrates after winning the Houston Open
Ian Poulter only secured his Masters berth with a play-off victory at Sunday's Houston Open
2018 Masters
Venue: Augusta National Dates: 5-8 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 online. Listen on BBC Radio 5 live and BBC Radio 5 live sports extra. Live text commentary, analysis and social media on the BBC Sport website and the sport app. Full details

Ian Poulter's most timely victory in Houston put the perfect exclamation mark on an extraordinary build-up to this week's Masters.

Rarely has there been more excitement before the journey that takes the world's top golfers down Magnolia Lane to the verdant yet capricious pastures of the Augusta National.

Week after week has generated a captivating storyline this year, particularly when viewed through the prism of the first men's major of the year. On Sunday in Texas, Poulter sensationally grabbing the last available Masters spot was entirely in keeping.

This was especially the case considering his dramatic backstory. The passionate Englishman thought his Augusta chances had been dashed with quarter-final defeat at the WGC Match Play, which left him 51st in the world and one place away from Masters qualification.

Yet the man they love to call "the postman" delivered in spectacular style to make the sudden-death play-off against Beau Hossler.

Poulter held his nerve at the first extra hole and suddenly it was next stop Augusta, where he joins a field of in-form golfing thoroughbreds hell-bent on getting the job done to secure a landmark major win.

Take your pick from Rory McIlroy seeking to complete the career grand slam, Tiger Woods contending for a 15th major, Phil Mickelson trying to become the oldest Masters winner or Bubba Watson vying for a third Green Jacket.

All four have put together bodies of work this season that justify their claims to be considered among the favourites.

There was McIlroy's timely win at Bay Hill three weeks ago, Woods performing above all expectations in collecting two top-five finishes in four starts, the 47-year-old Mickelson triumphed in Mexico and Watson collected his second title of the year at the WGC Match Play.

But then consider the claims of world number two Justin Thomas. The United States' player of the year in 2017 won the recent Honda Classic and has not been out of the top four in his past three events.

After a largely indifferent start to the year, Jordan Spieth is suddenly trending nicely. The Open champion finished third in Houston, a decent fillip as he heads to the scene of his first major triumph back in 2015.

Spieth's Masters record - second, first, second and 11th - mark out the 24-year-old American as an Augusta specialist.

Yet 30 years on from Scot Sandy Lyle becoming the first British winner of a Green Jacket, the portents for more UK success could hardly be more encouraging. Poulter's win was the third UK triumph in the past four weeks on the PGA Tour.

Northern Irishman McIlroy was the victor at Bay Hill a week after England's Paul Casey ended a long winless spell by beating Woods into second place at the Valspar Championship, also in Florida.

With that hurdle overcome, might this be the week for the 40-year-old to make his major breakthrough? His long game and the current sureness of putting touch are made for the Masters.

'Everyone's focused on Tiger'

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods has recovered from injury and personal problems and is seeking a 15th major

Were Casey to triumph, it would come amid the unique buzz that Woods brings to any event he plays - and its volume is turned up to the max when that tournament is the Masters.

"I think everyone's kind of solely focused on Tiger and what he's going to do here and seeing if he can get to number 15," said Jason Day, Woods' great friend and a former world number one.

"Obviously his driving's not the greatest, but once he's on the fairway he hits unbelievable iron shots. And if he doesn't, then everyone likes seeing the big flop shot.....and he holes those big long putts and makes things exciting."

But with Woods commanding so much attention, there could be scope for the other big names to go about their business relatively undisturbed.

"That's fine with us," added Day. "I can just kind of focus on what I need to do to try and win this tournament."

World number one Dustin Johnson will likely feel the same as he tries to make up for last year's dramatic withdrawal through injury, having headed into Masters week as the clear favourite.

Despite winning early in the year in Hawaii, Johnson has struggled to find his best form in recent weeks. The frustration of his agonising tumble down the stairs on the eve of the 2017 tournament, though, provides the kind of storyline that would be in keeping with this year's compelling narrative.

The same can be said of England's Justin Rose, an Augusta specialist with two runner-up finishes in the past three Masters, including last year's play-off defeat by Sergio Garcia.

Rose has three top-eight finishes in his past five events and has been quietly targeting this week all year.

And what about the prospects of a successful title defence for charismatic Spaniard Garcia, within weeks of becoming a dad and naming his daughter Azalea in honour of last year's maiden major win?

The storylines come thick and fast with plenty of room for UK optimism. Tyrrell Hatton has a putting touch made for Augusta's treacherous greens, while Tommy Fleetwood's unflappable nature is an invaluable asset at this major.

Who is going to win? You choose - but with so many outstanding candidates it seems certain to be one of the most memorable of Masters.

Indeed, this is the perfect venue for BBC Sport to launch its new golf podcast, The Cut, which will be available to download from this week.