It’s almost a near guarantee that, in all of its grandeur and perfectly clipped grass, Augusta National Golf Club eventually flushes out the pretenders from the prime-time players during Masters Tournament week.
In other words, this tournament rarely crowns a head-scratcher of a champion.
Not short on wide-ranging storylines — or personalities — this Masters sets up as a potential classic in the making.
It starts with the favorites. Three names instantly come to mind: defending champion Bubba Watson, who has captured two of the past three Masters titles; Rory McIlroy, the reigning British Open and PGA Championship winner who is halfway to golf’s Grand Slam, and 21-year-old American Jordan Spieth, a three-time winner this season who right now is arguably the world’s best clutch putter.
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Lurking are two who have the pedigree and track record at Augusta National to contend: four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods and three-time winner Phil Mickelson. But with the current state of their games, can they make more birdies than bogeys to be factors?
Adam Scott won this tournament in 2013, but he is fiddling with different putters. Jason Day, Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler have been near the Masters lead recently, but have not flashed enough form this season to really spark title talk. Dustin Johnson has, but can he overcome a shaky Masters track record tying for 30th or worse in four of his five appearances?
To explain what type of test the Masters is — and how Augusta National can get in the psyche of the best golfers in the world — 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell shared some stirring thoughts about this major, which begins its four-day run Thursday.
“I have learned to understand why this course frustrates you, and it frustrates you because it makes you play with a hand brake on,” McDowell said. “You just kind of have to take the hand brake off sometimes, and play aggressively to conservative targets.
“It means you take shots on that you fancy. And if you don’t like it, you’ve got to play safe. And you’ve got to chip and putt your way to these holes.”
McDowell added that sky-high confidence can be both an ally and an enemy playing this course.
“Sometimes it can be dangerous to be playing extremely well coming in here, because it gets you to take too much on,” McDowell said. “Sometimes when you are just a tiny bit off, and you have to play a little safer, and smarter, that can be a good recipe around here.
“It is getting that right balance.”
Only three men in Masters history have ever defended their title: Jack Nicklaus (1966), Nick Faldo (1990) and Woods (2002). Watson is trying to join that select group.
“The media attention, the atmosphere a year later, sometimes gets you away from your routine, so you just use your energy in a different way. That’s what I did (in 2013),” Watson said.
“This time, I know what to expect. It doesn’t mean I’m going to play better but I know how to save some energy.”
Watson has both the length off the tee and shot-shaping creativity to conquer Augusta National. And after the 17th-hole “Eisenhower Tree” was removed before last year’s Masters, opening up that fairway, Watson said only three tee shots on this course make him jittery — Nos. 1, 7 and 18.
“When you think about all the other holes, they look good to my eye. They set up well for me so it’s easy for me to envision the shot I want to hit,” Watson said. “If you add it up — yes, Augusta sets up pretty nicely for me.”
McIlroy is golf’s premier talent. He is No. 1 in the official world golf rankings. At 25, he has already captured four career major championships, and needs the Masters to complete the career grand slam.
Yet, his Masters record has not been stellar. He held a big lead in 2011, only to be done in by a final-round 80 to tie for 15th. In the past five Masters, he has recorded a single-round score of 77 or higher in each.
“And it hasn’t even been a bad 18 holes,” he said. “It’s just been a stretch of nine holes where it sort of got away from me.
“Mentally, I feel like I’m in a far better place on the golf course, and being able to handle adversity whenever it might come my way out there. You’ve just got to realize that there are holes out here that par is a good score, and you move on.”
It is hard to ignore what Spieth has accomplished to start this season. In his past 11 worldwide starts, he has three wins. He’s finished in the top five seven times. During that span, he is 110-under-par.
Last year, Spieth led in his Masters debut into the back nine on Sunday, only to hit his tee shot at the famous par-3 12th hole into Rae’s Creek, ending his championship bid.
“Last year I had no expectations. I didn’t know what it was going to be like because I had never played the tournament before,” Spieth said. “This year, I come in maybe expecting to play well on a course I feel very comfortable on. I feel like it suits my game nicely. And I also feel like I’ve been playing well.
“So as long as I’m getting enough rest, and just keeping with what’s been going on the last month, I should be able to make some birdies and get myself up there.”