World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship draws 49 of the top 50 golfers

The World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship features 49 of the top 50 golfers on the planet, which can only mean one thing: The Masters is right around the corner.

And while the Masters (April 11-14) is one of the premier events in all of sports, don’t think for a minute that the golfers who teed off in the first round Thursday in Doral, Florida, were looking ahead. Played at the TPC Blue Monster at Trump Doral, the 7,334-yard, par-72 course can present many challenges, and the winner will not only be battle tested but $1.5 million richer.

The Golf Channel and NBC will team up with the coverage Friday through Sunday (see details below), ensuring that viewers will never miss seeing their favorite players in action. In fact, aside from missing Fed Ex points leader Brandt Snedeker — who had to withdraw due to an injury — the field is a who’s who of golfers.

After Thursday’s round, Tiger Woods, Freddie Jacobson, Sergio Garcia, Graeme McDowell and Bubba Watson took advantage of great conditions to sit atop the leaderboard (-6). They were followed up by Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker, Phil Mickelson and Peter Hanson at 5-under. Everything is obviously fluid in a 4-day tournament, especially with 40 golfers entering Friday under par and another shooting an even 72.

One of the few over par was Rory McIlroy (+1), who continues to struggle since switching to Nike equipment. A week ago, the Irish phenom allowed his frustration to get the best of him as he walked off the course and withdrew from the Honda Classic in the middle of a round. All eyes will be on him today to see how he responds.

While NBC is on the air live this weekend with traditional coverage, Golf Channel will be providing live coverage of holes 15, 16 and 18. Last year,  the par-4, 467-yard 18th ranked as the toughest finishing hole on the PGA Tour. With water down the entire left side, drives and approach shots are susceptible to going out of bounds. Don’t be shocked if the tournament comes down to a single shot or even a playoff on this hole late Sunday afternoon.

Here’s the live TV coverage from Friday-Sunday (all times Eastern):

–Friday: 2-6pm (Golf Channel live traditional coverage)

–Saturday: Noon-2pm (Golf Channel live lead-in coverage); 2-5pm (Golf Channel live Spotlight Coverage); 2-6 p.m. ET (NBC live traditional coverage)

–Sunday 1-3pm (Golf Channel live lead-in coverage);  3-6pm (Golf Channel live Spotlight Coverage); 3-7 p.m. ET (NBC live traditional coverage)