AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The anticipation is greater than ever for the return of the roars to Augusta National. Even greater is the mystery surrounding the Masters, on so many levels.
It’s not just about trying to get a sense of who might be best suited for a green jacket on the second Sunday of April, especially with the choices running deeper than ever. Ten of the top 20 players in the world already are major champions.
It’s about who might be playing — Tiger Woods.
And to a lesser extent, it’s about who will be missing — Phil Mickelson.
Mind you, the Masters never needs a bump. Mainstream sports fans get in the mood at the start of the year upon hearing the opening three chords of “Augusta” by Dave Loggins, the theme song CBS plays in promotional commercials.
The warmth of the Florida swing brings golf’s annual rite of spring that much closer.
And then social media accounts came alive Tuesday — nine day before the April 7 start of the 86th Masters — with screenshots of various charts tracking a plane from South Florida to Augusta, a private jet registered to Woods.
He played 18 holes, according to a person on the grounds, presumably to see if his body could handle walking and playing the undulating terrain of Augusta National.
Is the five-time Masters champion really going to play just 14 months after his right leg was so badly damaged in a car crash outside Los Angeles that Woods said doctors contemplated amputation?
“I think for golf and for the Masters tournament and for everyone, to have Tiger there would be phenomenal,” Rory McIlroy said. “Anything Tiger Woods does in the game of golf is heightened whenever he’s there. It would be awesome for him to be there.
“Obviously, no one knows but him if he can make it around and if he believes he can compete.”
His only competition since the 2020 Masters in November was the PNC Championship with his son, Charlie. They played a scramble format. Woods rode in a cart on a flat Florida course. They finished second.
If he decides not to play, it would be the first Masters without Woods or Mickelson since 1994, when Woods was a senior in high school and Mickelson was out with a broken leg from skiing. In the last 25 years, they have combined for eight green jackets.
Mickelson got into so much hot water with a series of comments that managed to offend just about everyone — the Saudis putting up the money, Greg Norman using that money to push for a rival golf circuit, and the PGA Tour that Mickelson accused of “obnoxious greed” — that Lefty is sitting this one out. He hasn’t been seen on the golf course in two months.
All this drama, and there’s plenty of the conventional variety inside the yellow ropes that line the emerald green fairways of Augusta National.
Most striking about this year is how clearly youth has taken over. Scottie Scheffler arrives at the Masters as the No. 1 player in the world, the result of the 25-year-old from Texas winning against three strong fields in the last six weeks.
Eight of the top 10 players in the world are 30 or younger. The exception is 37-year-old Dustin Johnson, who has been No. 1 longer than any player since Woods, and McIlroy, that grizzled veteran at age 32.
Scheffler took over the top spot from Jon Rahm, the 27-year-old U.S. Open champion and the betting favorite. Right behind them is Collin Morikawa, who won two majors before he was 25 and old enough to rent a car. Behind him is Viktor Hovland, the 24-year-old from Norway.
The depth of young talent hasn’t been this pronounced in some 40 years. Justin Thomas already has 14 wins — a major, Players Championship and FedEx Cup title — and he comes into the Masters having gone more than a year since his last title.
“It just goes to show the level of golf that’s being played,” Thomas said. “I’ve played some pretty damn good golf, and if you’re not winning tournaments, you’re getting lapped right now.”
If there is a sense of urgency, it might belong to McIlroy. And few others would benefit as much if Woods were to play and cast his enormous shadow over the sport.
McIlroy was 25 when he won the 2014 British Open at Royal Liverpool for the third leg of the career Grand Slam. He has come to the Masters every year since then — this is No. 8 — with expectations of joining the most elite group in golf. Only five players have won all four majors.
He has not finished closer than six shots the previous seven attempts. A year ago, McIlroy missed the cut for the first time since 2010.
“I’m way more comfortable with my game, I’m happy with where everything is,” he said.
While there is no shortage of candidates among the game’s best, finding players in great form is a little more difficult. Scheffler is riding high, no doubt. But unlike some years when all the best arrived at Augusta with that winning feeling, only two players from the top 10 — Scheffler and Cameron Smith of Australia — have won this year.
Among the early winners was the defending champion, Hideki Matsuyama, who won the Sony Open in a playoff in January. But his road to Augusta took a detour when he felt soreness in his neck and shoulder and skipped two big events.
He returns to a louder Augusta National. There were no paying fans in November 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. A limited gallery was allowed last year — the best guess was about 8,000 — to see Matsuyama become the first Japanese player to win a green jacket.
Now it’s back to being a full house for the first time since 2019, when Augusta National was rocking with chants of “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!” Woods completed a most remarkable comeback from four back surgeries to win a fifth Masters, one short of Jack Nicklaus.
Is another possible?
Can he compete at age 46, with twice as many surgeries as green jackets? Padraig Harrington wonders if it even matters, so long as expectations are tempered.
“If he wants to come back and do nothing but wave to the crowd, we’re all thrilled. If he wants to come back and play nice golf and wave to the crowd, we’re all thrilled,” Harrington said. “If he’s good enough to come back and win majors, we’re all thrilled.
“You don’t want him falling into the category of getting frustrated, or other people expecting him to come back and wanting him to be what they remember.”
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