By Dave Shedloski
This year's Masters Tournament will mark CBS Sports' 63rd consecutive year providing television coverage, by far the longest partnership between a broadcast network and one of golf's major championships.
It truly is a tradition unlike any other, though changes always occur to the formula. This year, CBS Sports will produce more than 110 hours of programming among its network, cable and digital platforms, providing viewers and fans an ample fill of coverage to golf's most popular television event.
An added wrinkle, an undoubtedly a welcome one, will be the introduction of Shot Tracer for the first time at Augusta National Golf Club. The technology, the traces the arc and direction of a shot, will be used on five holes: Nos. 9, 10, 13, 15 and 18.
"We're trying to blend in the technology with our traditional coverage," said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. "We've had good success with this on our digital platforms, and we think the time is right to introduce it into our regular coverage on Saturday and Sunday."
Just 86 players will descend on Augusta National, the smallest field since 1997 when Tiger Woods romped to a record 12-stroke victory.
Speaking of Woods, his return for the first time since 2015 is likely to be the top story of this Masters, regardless of his performance, though his form this year in his comeback from back surgery has been impressive.
"I think we're going to get an outstanding rating no matter what," McManus said. "I think we're all familiar with the bump you get in ratings when Tiger is in contention. It would be nice if he were on the leaderboard and in contention on Saturday and Sunday. But I don't think our Masters telecast will live or die with the presence of Tiger Woods."
And as host Jim Nantz, preparing for his 33rd Masters, points out, Woods only embellishes a potential storyline that might be among the most intriguing ever witnessed in the tournament, noting how many of the top-ranked players are playing well at present. "I've never seen so many stars of the sport have their A-game heading to Augusta," he said.
McManus, Nantz and CBS lead analyst Sir Nick Faldo, a three-time Masters champion, offered their observations on the year's first major championship during a recent hour-long teleconference.
Can Tiger Woods win his fifth green jacket, 13 years after his last one and 10 years removed from his last major victory at the 2008 U.S. Open? And how big would that story be if he contends or wins?
Sir Nick Faldo: Does he have the nerve? He's certainly loving the opportunity, and he's certainly fit enough, healthy enough to be able to compete with the best of them. It's amazing that he's right in the mix. It's been 10 full years since his last major win though. Majors are different to close. It would be unbelievable. If Tiger does come back, it will be another show. Is this the greatest comeback in sports, let alone golf? This would be phenomenal to go through four surgeries and win another major. It would be his greatest achievement. But every part of his game looks excellent. He does have that odd shot when he aims left and it goes left, and if he fixes that then we'll see.
Jim Nantz: There's a different thing between challenging and winning. But if he wins, you're going to be talking about one of the epic moments in the history of the sport. No matter how he gets there. But to have him back in Butler Cabin would be one of the all-time scripts. This is an event that has an amazing ability to produce these Hollywood stories. You walk away most years wondering, "How did this happen?"
What has been the impact of Tiger in contention this year in events leading up to the Masters? What has been the atmosphere?
Sir Nick Faldo: Obviously, Tiger has created a great buzz this year. It started in San Diego with us. We've had a really good run with his game and the on-course attention has been very much like the old days of Tiger. It's been great. And here we are we have a great field, a lot of players on form, and Tiger is amazingly close.
Jim Nantz: Tiger has returned and far surpassed anyone's expectations of what he would do. And it's exciting for the game. It's indisputable that there is a great buzz when he is in the middle of it. It's interesting at the same time, I don't know if it's related, but the best players in the world, virtually every one of them but not all of them, but almost all, have seen their games rise to a healthy level approaching Augusta.
It's the fact that Phil (Mickelson) won for the first time in five years. Rory shot 64 the last day at Bay Hill and birdied five of the last six holes. You've got Bubba Watson winning twice, a two-time Masters champion, so he knows how to win there. Justin Thomas, the Player of the Year, he won in early March at the Honda and he's ready to contend for a green jacket, and he is the most recent winner of a major championship last August at Quail Hollow in Charlotte (at the PGA Championship). And Jason Day won at Torrey Pines. You look at the superpowers of the sport, and almost all of them are peaking at the right time.
What do you make of Rory McIlroy's chances of closing out the career grand slam, which would make him the first to do so in the modern era?
Jim Nantz: If Rory were to win, that would be in the top five all time stories. He's had a few swings at finishing off the career grand slam. It hasn't happened. He needs Augusta. The only one who completed the career grand slam at Augusta was Gene Sarazen in 1935. Tournament coverage didn't begin until many years past that. The idea that he would be coming down the stretch and we would get to watch a career grand slam completed at Augusta National, it may not be as big as Tiger coming back to win – that would trump all. That would be 1. This would be 1A, and it could happen.
Sir Nick Faldo: Once we see Rory get that intensity and a spring in his step it channels his focus and he can just about do anything. Remember when he finished with his six 3s at Quail Hollow and then Bay Hill (last month) was the same thing. There's no fear. He can hit any shot and he can hole any putt. If he gets into that kind of mode, he's plowing along, so, yes, he's probably feeling this is his best opportunity.
Favorites have been pointed out given their form – McIlroy, Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Mickelson and Day. Who is lurking out there as a dark horse?
Sir Nick Faldo: Xander Schauffele is the guy I look at. Kiradech Aphibarnrat is going along nicely. Kevin Kisner, he ran out of steam (at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play) but he is playing and putting really well. You've got to look at guys who are quite comfortable hitting downhill putts from 20 feet, find a way to make those kinds of putts. Tommy Fleetwood or Ross Fisher if you're looking for European guys.
Jim Nantz: A guy I like who has a big game is Jon Rahm. I will give you Paul Casey. Paul getting over that hurdle at Valspar was a huge thing for him. He's going to be tough at Augusta. Then there's the everyman champion, and I'm serious because he's consistently good, and that's Charley Hoffman. He's a solid player and he knows how to get it around Augusta. He's very capable of winning the green jacket.
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