Augusta, Ga. ( Associated Press) — The anticipation of the return of roarers at Augusta National is greater than ever. The mystery surrounding the Masters on so many levels is even greater.
It’s not just about trying to figure out who might be best suited for a green jacket on the second Sunday of April, especially with options going deeper than ever. Ten of the top 20 players in the world are already major champions.
It’s about who will be playing – Tiger Woods.
And in part, it’s about who will be missing – Phil Mickelson.
Remember, masters never need a collision. Mainstream sports fans get in the mood at the start of the year by listening to the opening three chords The theme song to “Augusta” by Dave Loggins features in CBS promotional commercials.
The warmth of Florida’s swing draws the annual spring festival of golf even closer.
And then social media accounts came alive on Tuesday – nine days before the 86th Masters began on April 7 – with screenshots of various charts tracking a plane from South Florida to Augusta, a Registered Private Jets in the Woods,
According to one person on the field, he played 18 holes, possibly to see if his body could handle walking and playing in the rolling Augusta Nationals.
Is the five-time Masters champion really going to play 14 months after his right leg was so badly damaged in a car accident outside Los Angeles that Woods said doctors had considered amputation?
“I think for golf and the Masters tournament and for everyone else, it will be phenomenal to have Tiger,” Rory McIlroy said. “Whatever Tiger Woods does in the game of golf, whenever he is there he is elevated. It would be wonderful to be there for him.
“Obviously, no one knows, but if he can make it and if he thinks he can compete.”
His only competition since the 2020 Masters in November was the PNC Championship with his son Charlie. He played a scramble format. Woods rode on the Flat Florida course. They finished second.
If he decides not to play, it will be the first Masters without Woods or Mickelson since 1994, when Woods was a senior in high school and Mickelson was out skiing with a broken leg. Over the past 25 years, they have added eight green jackets.
Mickelson got into so much hot water with a series of comments that just about everyone managed to offend — the Saudis put up the money, Greg Norman to use that money to push for rival golf circuits, and the PGA Tour. Mickelson accused “obnoxious greed”—that the lefty is sitting it out. He hasn’t been seen on the golf course for two months.
All this drama, and so many traditional variations inside the yellow ropes that are at Augusta National’s emerald green fair.
The most striking thing about this year is how clearly the youth has taken over. Scotty Scheffler reached the Masters as the No. 1 player in the world, the 25-year-old from Texas with victories over the past six weeks against three strong fields.
Eight of the top 10 players in the world are 30 or younger. The exceptions are 37-year-old Dustin Johnson, who has been No. 1 longer than any player since Woods, and McIlroy, who was a veteran at age 32.
Schaeffler took the top spot from 27-year-old US Open champion and betting favorite Jon Rahm. Right behind him is Colin Morikawa, who won two Majors before turning 25 and was good enough to rent a car. Behind him is 24-year-old Victor Hovland of Norway.
The depth of the young talent hasn’t become apparent in some 40 years. Justin Thomas already has 14 victories – a major, Players Championship and FedEx Cup title – and he is more than a year away from his previous title at the Masters.
“It just goes to show the level of golf that is being played,” Thomas said. “I’ve played some really good golf, and if you’re not winning the tournament, you’re just lagging.”
If there’s a sense of urgency, it could be related to McIlroy. And few others will benefit as much as Woods should play and cast his heavy shadow on the game.
McIlroy was 25 when he won the 2014 British Open at Royal Liverpool for the third leg of a career Grand Slam. He’s come to the Masters every year since then – it’s number 8 – with hopes of joining the most elite group in golf. Only five players have won all four Majors.
He hasn’t finished close to six shots in his last seven attempts. A year ago, McIlroy missed the cut for the first time since 2010.
“I am more comfortable with my game, I am happy where everything is,” he said.
While there is no dearth of candidates among the best in the game, it is a bit difficult to find players in great form. Scheffler is riding high, no doubt about it. But unlike some years when All the Best arrived at Augusta with that winning spirit, only two players in the top 10 – Australia’s Scheffler and Cameron Smith – have won this year.
Among the early winners was defending champion Hideki Matsuyama, who won the Sony Open in the playoffs in January. But his path to Augusta took a turn when he felt pain in his neck and shoulder and missed two big events.
He returns in a loud Augusta National. There were no paying fans in November 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Last year a limited gallery was allowed – the best estimate was around 8,000 – to see Matsuyama become the first Japanese player to win the green jacket.
Now it’s back to being a full house for the first time since 2019, when Augusta National “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!” Woods won his fifth Masters, the most notable coming back from four back surgeries, one shorter than Jack Nicklaus.
Is another possible?
Can he compete at age 46 with twice as many surgeries as the Green Jackets? Padraig Harrington wonders if it even matters, as long as the expectations have calmed down.
“If he wants to come back and do nothing but greet the crowd, we are all thrilled. If he wants to come back and play good golf and greet the crowd, we are all thrilled,” Harrington said. “If he’s good enough to come back and win big, we’re all thrilled.
“You don’t want him to fall into the category of being disappointed, or have other people expect him to come back and want him to be what they remember.”
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