Masters Scheduled to Begin Today


Published on April 5 2018 6:28 am
Last Updated on April 5 2018 6:28 am

By Jeff Babineau

The tall white leader boards that stretch across the emerald hills of Augusta National Golf Club and usually tell stories in bright red numbers have been left completely blank in the days leading into the 82nd Masters Tournament.

Perhaps there is good reason for this. Consider those boards blank canvases. Over the next four days, at a venue that produces magic as no other can, the potential for brilliant pictures and exhilarating storylines has no limits.

Where to start? Tiger Woods barely could hit a golf ball more than 60 yards roughly six months ago, and he wondered at the Presidents Cup last fall whether he’d ever compete again. After a two-year hiatus at Augusta National during which he stepped no closer to the golf course than the Tuesday night Champions Dinner, Woods is fit, pain-free, playing well and aimed to make a run at a fifth Green Jacket.

For Woods, a man who has endured four operations on his back and worked through personal challenges, this is where it all began, really, in 1997, when a 21-year-old phenom turned the golf universe on its side in a record 12-shot victory at the Masters. Around here, the air still circulates from that final fist pump.

“Of all the tournaments I won, that was by far the most important tournament,” Woods said this week. He may reconsider that ranking should he be clad in a Green Jacket as a 15-time major champion on Sunday.

At age 28, Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy needs only a Masters victory to complete a career Grand Slam and join the likes of Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods. He carries the momentum of shooting a Sunday 64 to capture the Arnold Palmer Invitational, just as Phil Mickelson rides a tailwind from winning the WGC-Mexico, his first victory since 2013. At a course he knows as few other players do, Mickelson is fueled with confidence to win a fourth Green Jacket. If he does so, he would become the Masters’ oldest champion at 47.

Mickelson is in terrific form. Nicklaus arrived to the 1986 Masters without a top-30 finish in seven starts that year; Mickelson has been sixth or better in half of his 10 starts this season.

“Watch out for those older guys this week,” Tom Watson, the Hall of Famer and two-time Masters champion, warned. “You’ve got Phil, and you’ve got Tiger … they could make some noise.”

Jason Day is healthy and also has a victory this season. Justin Thomas and Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters champion, own two apiece. Jordan Spieth already has one Green Jacket and has been runner-up twice here, and he seemed to unlock something in his game as he contended in Houston last week.

Sergio Garcia, the man who won last year’s Tournament in his 19th Masters start, breaking a run of 0-for-73 at the majors, is a man at peace, a new husband and father whose game appears to be sound.

This is how rich the setup to this Masters has been: Do you remember a golfer named Dustin Johnson? He’s World No. 1, and practically has been an afterthought with all that’s going on around him in Georgia.

“I feel this is the most anticipated Masters in my lifetime, really, unless there’s one that I missed in the ’60s or something,” said Paul Azinger, the former major champion who now is an analyst for Fox Sports.

“I fully expect Tiger to be in contention here.” Azinger paused, then amended that thought: “I fully expect Tiger to win.”

Woods certainly ranks among the favorites, even though he has made only five starts this season – he’s been 12th or better in his last three – and has not won a Green Jacket since 2005.

Given the stage and how dynamically the players have been performing leading in, the 82nd Masters could prove to be one of the best, and perhaps even the best, in the Tournament’s incredible history.

“I don’t think there’s one clear-cut favorite,” Woods said. “I think there’s so many guys playing well at the same time. I think that’s what is making this year’s Masters so exciting, is that there are so many guys.

“We know we’re going to have to play well in order to win, and it’s going to be quite a challenge. It’s going to be fun. And I think that everyone’s really looking forward to it – not just from the spectators, but from the players as well.”

Yes, Thursday at Augusta could be the start of something very big.