AUGUSTA, Ga. – Everything around Augusta is coming along nicely.
Temperatures are warm – and today should fall into the 70-degree range. All of the ornamentals – the azaleas, dogwoods and magnolias – are in full bloom, popping with majesty.
Not a blade of Bermuda grass on Augusta National’s fairways is out of place. All the sand bunkers glisten with white sand. And the famous greens are slicker than ever.
Only one element is missing – a clear favorite for the 2010 Masters which begins today.
The usual standard bearer – world No. 1 Tiger Woods – has been away from golf activity while facing a tempestuous private-life situation amid admissions of marital infidelity and subsequent sex-addiction treatment. Needless to say, his mind has been in other places.
Another major star, Phil Mickelson, hasn’t exactly been lighting up PGA Tour events this season. He hasn’t contended for any tournament titles, his best finish a tie for eighth at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
Great things are expected from a contingent of emerging 20-something stars, but in the past 25 years only four players in their 20s, including Tiger Woods four times, have won this championship.
Seventeen rookies are in the field, but rarely do first-timers win the Masters. Six amateurs are here, just hoping to make the cut.
So who is the favorite? Quite possibly – nobody.
“I think there’s a lot of guys playing well, a lot of guys who have an opportunity to win,” said Steve Stricker, ranked second in the world behind Woods. “I think it’s wide open.”
These days, when Woods yells, “Fore,” it’s usually the paparazzi that come running.
Woods is rusty. He knows it. He’s admitted as much. And during his five-month layoff, he didn’t practice until mid-February. He has not played a tournament prior to arriving at Augusta National.
“The fact that I haven’t really played at all, that’s a little bit concerning,” he said. “I’m hoping I get my feel back quickly – you know, feel for the game, feel for shots, feel more how my body is reacting and what my distances are going to be. I hope to get that back relatively quickly … maybe the first hole.
“But if not, please (I) hope it’s the second hole.”
After playing with Woods during a mid-week practice round, his good friend Mark O’Meara assessed the state of Tigers’s game.
“A 7 or 8 (on a 1-to-10 scale),” O’Meara said. “But he can win at a 7 or 8.”
For a change, Woods is this week’s X-factor: It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for him to miss the cut – or win his fifth Masters title.
“I just don’t know,” Northern Ireland’s Padraig Harrington said. “You know, no matter what, how he looks or what he comes up and says, you don’t know fully how (his personal situation) is affecting him inside and how it’s affecting his golf. People react differently.”
It’s a large class of rookies, led by European Tour up-and-comers Charl Schwartzel, Chris Wood and Simon Dyson, Australia’s Marc Leishman and Nathan Green and Americans Jason Dufner, Brian Gay, Bill Haas, Steve Marino and Kevin Na.
Only once in the modern era has a golfer won the Masters in his first appearance – Fuzzy Zoeller in a sudden-death playoff in 1979.
“It is very difficult to win here in your first year, but not impossible,” said Larry Mize, the 1987 Masters champion and an Augusta native. “After you’ve played here once, and watched it on TV – you’re a lot more comfortable.”
Six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus, who is here this week as one of the honorary starters, told a story about his first trip to Augusta in 1959. After two rounds, he led the field in greens hit in regulation (31 of 36) – and still missed the cut.
Meanwhile, Arnold Palmer led the field at the midway point, hitting only 19 greens in regulation.
“I said (to myself), ‘You better learn how to chip and putt,’ and understand what happens on this golf course,” Nicklaus recalled. “That’s what I learned. You know, I learned by watching and seeing what other people did.”
MOORE AND COMPANY
Puyallup’s Ryan Moore is making his third Masters appearance, his first as a professional, and appears poised for a breakout at the age of 27.
His 20-something peers are highly regarded, too – guys such as Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, Germany’s Martin Kaymer, Colombia’s Camilo Villegas and Americans Dustin Johnson, Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan, Sean O’Hair and Nick Watney.
Moore best finish was a tie for 13th in 2005 – just a few months before he left UNLV.
Now, at 27, he has already won on the PGA Tour, and is ready to make some noise.
“We’ll see. I feel good. I love the golf course. Majors are majors, and they’re tough,” Moore said after the par-3 contest Wednesday. “I just have to go play good golf, it’s that simple. It’s right there in front of me. I feel capable of it. It’s a matter of going out and doing it now.”
Perhaps more than in any other major championship, experience is necessary to survive around Augusta National Golf Club.
Only Woods (1997, 2001-02, 2005), Bernhard Langer (1985), Jose Maria Olazabal (1994) and Trevor Immelman (2008) have won the Masters in their 20s in the past quarter-decade.
“Is four a high number or a low number?” Harrington said when asked about the 20-something subject. “It’s probably about the right amount of guys (who) have won. Yes, experience is an issue … but it’s much more to do with the player’s talent and quality of the player.”
Odds – and history – indicate if Woods and Mickelson are off this week, a veteran in his 30s or 40s could end up winning Sunday.
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442