The countdown to this year’s Masters has hit single digits as the iconic major starts next Thursday at Augusta National in Georgia.

The race for this year’s Green Jacket looks to be one of the most intriguing in recent years as a result of Tiger Woods' return to the PGA Tour.

Tiger just making the short stroll up Magnolia Lane and teeing it up at the first hole next Thursday would have been enough to capture the attention of world sport, however, the former world number one has returned with a bang and is now one of the favourites to add another major to his collection of 14, while looking to land his fifth Green Jacket.

But it is not just Woods. The game of golf has, perhaps, never been healthier as Phil Mickelson has been buoyed by his recent PGA Tour win, while world number one Dustin Johnson is being hounded for that particular honour by the form player of the past 12 months, Justin Thomas.

The current crop of young guns are all dragging each other up to this world class level with Jordan Spieth on the lookout for his fourth major, while Brooks Koepka will be hoping to find the form that guided him to last year’s US Open. Rickie Fowler, meanwhile, will be looking to shake off the tag of being one of the best players currently playing not to have won a major.

And former champion Bubba Watson has made a timely return to form with victory in last weekend’s WGC – Match Play. The two-time champion has the ability to turn Augusta into a pitch and putt competition with his length off the tee and will be gunning for a third Green Jacket next week.

But in this Ryder Cup year, the European team will be feeling very confident ahead of September’s event at Le Golf National in Paris and are set to be well-represented at the business end of the leaderboard next week.

Last year’s champion, Sergio Garcia, is just one of a handful of players from Europe who will be looking to contend at Augusta.

Justin Rose remains in fine fettle and will be looking to go one better this time around, having lost to Garcia in a play-off last year.

Tommy Fleetwood, Paul Casey, Henrik Stenson, Alex Noren and Tyrrell Hatton are all firmly embedded in the world top 20 and every one of them has the game to take on the gruelling Augusta National track.

But Europe’s best hope, perhaps, sits on the very broad shoulders of the current world number three, Jon Rahm, who had made a huge impact on both the PGA and European Tours in the past two years.

The 23-year-old has already won twice on both tours and romped to a six-stroke victory in last year’s Irish Open, before going on to win the season-ending DP World Tour Championship.

As things stand, the only Irishman teeing it up at Augusta will be four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, who is another to show decent form going into the tournament.

McIlroy’s injury-hit 2017 campaign appears to be behind the former world number one and all aspects of his game came together to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational earlier this month.

The County Down golfer has put himself in a winning position before at Augusta and is looking to complete the career grand slam by landing the Green Jacket.

But will there be any more Irish in Augusta?

There is just one PGA Tour event to be played ahead of this year’s first major and that takes place in Houston this weekend.

And four Irish golfers will be teeing it up looking to make a last-ditch bid to garner an invitation to the Masters.

Padraig Harrington, Shane Lowry, Paul Dunne and Seamus Power are all in the Houston Open field and the only option available to all four is to win the tournament.

Lowry is the best ranked player of the quartet, currently 77th in the world, however, the Offaly native has yet to hit form in 2018 despite finishing strongly last year, ending the season in a runners-up placing at the DP World Tour Championships.

The former Irish Open champion reached the world number 17 at the end of 2015 but fell out of the top fifty last year and has yet to show the consistent form needed to break back into that company.

Paul Dunne, however, sits just one place behind Lowry in 78th place and the Greystones native had been steadily climbing the rankings, before breaking into the top 100 with victory in last year’s British Masters.

Dunne enters this week on the back of a top five finish at last week’s PGA Tour event in the Dominican Republic and will fancy his chances of going low this week.

The Houston Open traditionally sets up the course along similar lines to what the players will expect next week at the Masters, which helps to attract the big names a week out from a major, and while there will not be too much rough, a very good putting performance will be needed to contest here.

Dunne has yet to make a real impact on the PGA Tour and is another who had a slow start to the year, however, last week’s performance will build confidence ahead of tee off on Thursday.

Seamus Power burst onto the PGA Tour last year having qualified through the Web.Com Tour, impressing with several top 20 finishes. The Waterford man had to go out and earn his exemption ahead of this year’s calendar and Power is another who has found some form ahead of the Houston Open.

Power matched Dunne in last week’s event and enjoyed a share of fifth place, his best finish yet on tour and certainly has the potential to compete this week on what is a risk and reward layout.

Padraig Harrington is the last of the four Irish in the field and judging on recent form, will need something special to contend this week.

The three-time major winner still believes that he has the game to compete at this level but has missed the cut at five of his last six events.

Yet Harrington will bring everything and will look to find the form that saw him enjoy a fourth-place finish at the Turkish Airlines Open last November.

Harrington tees it up alongside Emiliano Grillo and Jonas Blixit, starting on the back nine on Thursday at 2:20pm (Irish time), while Lowry plays alongside Brandt Snedeker and Aaron Baddeley, teeing off on the tenth hole at 7:00pm (Irish time).

Dunne is flying below the marquee-groups radar alongside Ben Silverman and Xinjun Zhang, teeing off at the penultimate tee-time of 7:50pm (Irish time), while Power goes out with Nicholas Lindheim and Dawie van der Walt at 3:10pm (Irish time).