5 questions surrounding the favorites to win Masters

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In fewer than 24 hours, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player will step up to the tee as honorary starters at Augusta National and pump perfectly straight drives down the fairway, and the 2018 Masters will officially be underway.

Once the smiles throughout the golf universe fade - smiles that partially serve to hide resentment toward the senior citizens still having smoother swings than many in their prime - and the legendary Masters champions saunter back to the clubhouse, the most stacked field in recent memory is set to take on the first major of the season.

While all of the game's biggest stars will pursue this year's green jacket, each of them faces a unique path to golf's most coveted prize. Below, we ask key questions that could determine the fates of five tournament favorites.

Can Tiger find confidence with his driver?

No one moves the needle like the 14-time major champion. His return to Augusta is undoubtedly the biggest story of the week, and, if he gets up to his old tricks, possibly the entire year.

Woods has appeared in five official events this season, and in his most recent three, he's placed 12th, T-2, and T-5, respectively. While his game appears to be in vintage form, something is still missing: consistency with the driver.

His short game is tight, his irons are pure, and the famous 3-wood stingers are alive and well, but an erratic driver has prevented Woods from fully rounding back into shape free of worry.

Failure to commit to his swing on the tee foiled his charge at Bay Hill in his last start, and in order to patrol Augusta's hallowed grounds like he used to, he'll most definitely need to find confidence with the big stick again.

Will Spieth's magic putter return?

Though it once seemed unimaginable, Jordan Spieth has run into a prolonged putting slump.

After establishing a perfect stroke as his trademark through the early stages of his young career, the world No. 4 has lacked the magic touch in 2018, ranking 185th in strokes gained when it comes to putting this season.

The good news? Despite his paltry putting numbers, Spieth ranks third in strokes gained: tee to green, and showed signs of snapping his funk with a closing-round 66 at the Houston Open last week. If that carries over, expect the 2015 champ to be in contention once again.

Grand Slam for Rory?

Every April, the question becomes unavoidable: Can Rory McIlroy complete the career Grand Slam?

Since his Open Championship in 2014, the spotlight, as if it weren't already bright enough everywhere else, zooms in on McIlroy the moment he steps foot in Augusta as he vies to become the sixth golfer to win all four majors.

McIlroy's history in Georgia will always circle back to his infamous final-round 80 in 2011, when he let his first chance at immortality slip away in unthinkable fashion. But the Northern Irishmen has placed inside the top 10 in each of his last four tries at Augusta, and already had a massive, confidence-boosting win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational this season.

Perhaps this is the year he gets it done.

Is the 3rd time a charm for Justin Thomas?

Thomas has stormed onto the scene over the last year, earning five wins, his first major title, and the FedEx Cup in 2017. He followed that up with two wins and a runner-up in the early portion of the 2018 schedule.

The 24-year-old has rocketed to No. 2 in the world, and narrowly missed his chance at taking over top spot from Dustin Johnson at WGC-Dell Match Play. For good reason, he's expected to be high on the leaderboard this weekend, but he'll need his best efforts at a course that hasn't yielded him much personal success.

Thomas has played in the last two Masters, finishing over par in both attempts. In fact, he's only recorded three rounds under par at Augusta, along with a pair of 73s, two 76s, and a 78. Surely, he's a different golfer this time around, but he still needs to prove himself at America's most famous golf venue.

Is this finally Justin Rose's year?

He may not boast the same clout or notoriety as those before him on this list, but Rose is a perennial threat at Augusta and has been dialed in lately.

He kicked off his season with a win at the HSBC Champions and has continued with three top 10s in five tournaments since. As for his resume at Augusta, he's one of the best, finishing inside the top 25 in every try since 2009.

But despite his consistency, Rose hasn't been able to come away with a win. In 2017, he couldn't hold off Sergio Garcia, earning a bitter runner-up finish for the second time in three years. Based on that alone, he'll likely enter play Thursday as motivated as anyone to erase past narratives. Considering his recent form, he just might pull it off.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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