All eyes on Tiger at Masters, but there are plenty of players fit to wear the green jacket
Two years ago, the 80th Masters was approaching.
All the chatter and projections about who would be the 2016 champion at Augusta National was about the young “Big Three” — Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy.
Spieth arrived as the defending champion. Day was the world No. 1 and coming off a major breakthrough triumph in the PGA Championship the previous summer. McIlroy was so serious about getting a green jacket that he skipped the Par-3 Contest.
And your champion?
Danny Willett, an Englishman who grew up on a sheep farm in Yorkshire. Since his Masters victory, he has fallen to 296th in the world rankings.
It says a lot about golf’s fickle nature, and that even in a year such as this — when the tournament is being hyped as one of the “most anticipated” Masters of all time — the beauty is no one knows what’s going to happen when they tee up Thursday.
The return of a healthy and competitive Tiger Woods to Augusta National Golf Club for the first time in three years has taken the interest to a new level, and in some ways maybe taken the heat off those most mentioned as favorites.
There are top players who have been in form for months, such as Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose, and those, like Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson, who have quickly put themselves in the conversation with recent wins.
Spieth is a wild card because he’s struggled with his putting. Justin Thomas can win every week, but hasn’t played well at Augusta.
And who’s the Willett of this field? Maybe San Diegan Xander Schauffele, a Masters rookie, or Austrian Bernd Wiesberger.
“For the fringe fan, I think you’re probably seeing this through the lens of Tiger being back, and whether he’s going to win a fifth green jacket,” CBS golf anchor Jim Nantz said on a conference call last week. “But inside the sport, the excitement is percolating. We’ve never seen so many stars in the sport have their game in form coming into Augusta.”
Noting that this is his 33rd Masters — his first coming in 1986 when Jack Nicklaus won — Nantz said he can’t remember looking forward to a Masters more than this one.
“It’s always highly anticipated for those who love the game,” Nantz said. “But this is probably the most anticipated we’ve had that any of us have seen in our lifetime. There’s a lot of factors going into that statement.”
Ten of the previous 14 tournaments have been won by players among the top 12 in the world rankings, and eight of the last 11 Masters have been secured by first-time major winners. This year, seven of the top 12 have at least one victory (Thomas has won twice.).
As of Wednesday afternoon, Spieth was tabbed by oddsmakers as the 10-1 co-favorite with Woods. A three-time major winner at the age of 24, including the 2015 Masters, Spieth’s record in only four trips to Augusta is impressive: second, first, second, 11th.
The next three favorites are Johnson, McIlroy and Thomas. Only McIlroy, 28, has truly come close to a green jacket, blowing the lead on the back nine in 2011.
Thomas, 24, last year’s FedEx Cup champion and winner of the PGA Championship, has played eight Masters rounds and hasn’t shot in the 60s yet. He has three scores of 76 or worse.
“I love this place so much. It’s a great, great golf course,” Thomas said. “It just requires a very strong mental week. You need to be mentally sharp. You need to not make stupid mistakes out there.”
At 68 years old, Tom Watson won the Par-3 Contest with a 6-under 21. Jack Nicklaus’ grandson made a hole in one. And Tony Finau put his first Masters appearance in jeopardy by badly twisting his ankle while celebrating his ace.
Finau sank a hole in one at No. 7 and began running toward the green. He turned to see his family on the tee, rolled his ankle and fell. Finau got up, appearing to be in some pain, but continued to play.
The other “official” ace was scored by South African Dylan Frittellli at No. 8, but the best came in a group that featured Nicklaus, Watson and Gary Player. Nicklaus handed his club to his grandson, G.T. The 15-year-old hit a beautiful shot that backed up and rolled into the hole. The group celebrated with hugs, and Jack Nicklaus wiped away tears.
“Curtis Strange asked me going by where this ranks,” Nicklaus said. “I said, ‘That’s my No. 1.’ My wins, that’s OK. But to have your grandson make a hole in one and watch him to do it, man, that’s amazing.
“For him to get a hole in one at the biggest venue in the world … wow.”
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