|Without Tiger, the Masters has an open look|
|Tuesday, April 08, 2014 8:07 PM|
AUGUSTA, Ga. — One after another, some of the world’s best players and favorites to win the Masters trudged up the hill on the opening hole to start their practice rounds.
Phil Mickelson. Rory McIlroy. Adam Scott.
It was typical of any Tuesday at Augusta National, except for the scoreboard to the right of where they were walking. The board has the names of all 97 players in the field, with blank boxes to put their scores when the tournament begins. On the far right side of the board is a list of this year’s noncompeting invitees.
Tommy Aaron. Doug Ford. Tiger Woods.
“It’s a weird feeling not having him here, isn’t it?” asked Mickelson, a 3-time Masters champion and the chief foil for Woods over the years. “He’s been such a mainstay in professional golf and in the majors. It’s awkward to not have him here. I hope he gets back soon. I hope he’s back for the other majors. As much as I want to win — and I know how great he is and tough to beat — it makes it special when he’s in the field and you’re able to win.”
Woods hasn’t been the same all year, even before back surgery last week. He is missing the Masters for the first time. His presence looms as large as some of the Georgia pines lining the fairways, though it will be forgotten when the opening shot is in the air Thursday, and a green jacket is awarded Sunday.
Even so, Woods brings a buzz to any tournament, even at Augusta National.
And this year, his absence has brought talk of the most wide-open Masters in nearly 20 years. Las Vegas has installed Scott and McIlroy as the betting favorites at 10-1, followed by Mickelson, Jason Day and Matt Kuchar at 12-1.
McIlroy had his own version of a betting sheet on the table where he sat during his interview — the tee times for the opening two rounds. Told that 97 players were in the field, the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland figured 70 had a chance to win.
“There’s a few past champions that play that might not be able to compete. There might be a few first-timers or a few amateurs that won’t compete,” McIlroy said. “But then you’ve got the rest. I’m just looking down the list here. Stewart Cink. Tim Clark. Ian Woosnam — no.”
The room filled with laughter as McIlroy smiled and said, “Sorry, Woosie,” referring to the 56-year-old former champion.
“You’ve got a lot of guys that can win, a lot of guys that have won PGA Tour events,” McIlroy added. “OK, we’re playing at Augusta. Because it’s the Masters and because it’s so big and so hyped up or whatever you want to say, you ought to remember that you’re still playing against the same guys you play with week in and week out.
“I’ve beaten them before. They’ve beaten me before.”
The PGA Tour is 21 tournaments into the season and only one player (Zach Johnson) won while he was in the top 10 in the world. McIlroy and Scott each had comfortable leads going into the final round and lost to players outside the top 100.
“I think in the past, certainly that’s been easy to go to events and look at a guy who is the guy to beat,” Scott said, not naming Woods because he didn’t need to. “I think that scope has kind of broadened now. There’s a lot of guys with the talent and the form that aren’t necessarily standing out above the others. But on their week, they’re going to be tough to beat.
“I’d like to think my name is one of those guys. And I feel like I’m going to be one of the guys who has got a chance if I play well this week.”
Scott had one more occasion to wear his green jacket Tuesday night as host of the Champions Dinner. Then, he sets out in a bid to join Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Woods as the only players to win back-to-back Masters.
For years, the Masters was seen as having the smallest group of contenders and not just because it had the smallest field of the four majors. Augusta National is a puzzle that can take years to figure out. The roars that reverberate through the trees and from deep in Amen Corner on Sunday can be unsettling.
Scott won two years after he was a runner-up. Jason Day has completed two Masters and has yet to finish worse than third. As for Mickelson? There’s no telling what he might accomplish next. Even though he has withdrawn from two tournaments with different injuries this year, Augusta invigorates the 43-year-old Mickelson.
All of them would love to be near the top of the leaderboard Sunday afternoon. By then, no one will be thinking about anything except a green jacket.
Lefty has Masters covered, except for small change: There was a time around here when Mickelson’s nerves were stretched so tight, you could bounce a quarter off ‘em and have it land in Atlanta.
That was exactly 10 years, five majors and three green jackets ago. He arrived that week 0-for-42 in the tournaments that matter and left as one of the most contented men on the planet. Back at the scene of that first major win for his interview session Tuesday, Mickelson was charming and so much the master of his domain you half-expected him to wade into the gathering of reporters and pull that same quarter out from behind someone’s ear.
Now 43, Lefty was at ease, deftly tucking many of those reporters’ first names into his answers and lavishing praise on the conditions at Augusta National and even long-time rival Woods.
Then again, he could afford to be gracious. Mickelson sat down at the podium fresh off a big win in one of those high-stakes practice rounds for which he’s become notorious.
The longer he goes on spinning tales that are insightful or funny — and sometimes both — the more Mickelson sounds like one of the game’s elder statesmen. But unlike Jack Nicklaus, 74, and Arnold Palmer, 84, who reminisced about his last major win 50 years ago, Mickelson is still a very real threat to win every time he tees it up.
He’s still ranked No. 5 in the world but hasn’t had a top-10 finish this season and his last win was last summer’s almost magical victory at the British Open. More problematic, perhaps, Mickelson has been hobbled by back and muscle injuries for months, not pronouncing himself “100 percent’ healthy until last week. He even admitted to some nerves “because I always like coming into this week with a win. … being in contention a few times and having that confidence and experience to build on.”
But if Mickelson was concerned about his chances, he might have been the only one in the room.
“Now that you’ve won five Majors,” came the question, “how cognizant are you of climbing the ladder of historical greats where you have (Lee) Trevino at six, Arnie at seven? Is that something you think about, where you stand in relation to those figures?”
“Not really,” Mickelson began. “But I do know that Arnold and Tiger have four jackets and I have three. I know Jack has six but nothing I can do about that right now. I’m just trying to get back to where the two ahead of me are.”
Yet it’s hard to imagine Mickelson having more fun with yet another green jacket than he did with the previous ones. He slept in it the first night after winning, wore it in the drive-through line at Krispy Kreme one morning, and donned it at dinner more often than a color-blind waiter.
Even though Mickelson could have gone on for hours, the moderator signaled last question
“What are your strongest memories of being on 18 10 years ago?” he was asked. “What comes right to mind?”
“I jumped so high I almost hit lightning that day,” Mickelson replied. “Unfortunately the photographers, they just didn’t time it right, so it’s very, yeah, I felt like that was an unfair assessment of that leap. Because I probably could have dunked a basketball if need be.”
The Masters that made Rory McIlroy cry: McIlroy had one of the greatest recoveries in 2011 when he blew a 4-shot lead in the final round of the Masters by shooting 80, then bounced back two months later to set the scoring record in the U.S. Open in his first major win.
His father recalled a phone conversation he had with McIlroy that night after the Masters in which the 21-year-old said he was OK.
Turns out the phone call with his mother the next morning was different.
“That’s probably the only time I’ve cried over golf was the morning after in 2011,” McIlroy said.
He was blowing away the field at Augusta that year when everything went wrong, especially the back nine. He took triple bogey on No. 10 after a tee shot into the cabins, 3-putted the 11th and 4-putted the 12th.
So it’s strange to hear that McIlroy has never had a top 10 at the Masters in five appearances. He tied for 15th in 2011. He fell out of contention each of the last two years with a poor round on Saturday, including a 79 last year.
Even so, he arrived at Augusta National optimistic instead of wary from past experiences. Asked to describe the emotions he associated with Augusta National, he replied, “Excitement.
“I have no ill feelings toward 2011. I thought it was a very important day in my career. It was a big learning curve for me. And I don’t know if I had not had that day, would I be the person and the player that I am sitting here? Because I learned so much from it. I learned exactly not what to do under pressure and contention and I definitely learned from that day how to handle my emotions better on the course.”
LEFTY’S BAG: Sometimes, there really is a method to the madness of Mickelson.
He once used two drivers at the Masters. Or he’ll come up with a different fairway metal. Sure, he loves to tinker with equipment, but he revealed a reason why he’s always working on new clubs for Augusta National.
“It’s because I have two free clubs this week,” Mickelson said. “So for the past six or seven years I’ve played this tournament, I have not had a shot between 90 and 130 yards. So think about that. I have a 40-yard gap there. I take out my sand wedge and gap wedge because I don’t ever need them and it allows me to put in two special clubs. That’s why I’m always working on something.”
Mickelson said he doesn’t need anything special this week. He’s putting a 64-degree wedge in the bag. He’s not sure about the other one.
“I’m not going to play with 13 clubs but I don’t know what the 14th club is going to be,” he said. “I’ll throw one in — the sand or gap wedge — just out of default but I don’t ever use them here.”
Someone asked if there was another course where he knew he wouldn’t need all 14 clubs.
“There’s some I need 16, but that’s not really an option,” Mickelson answered. “It’s just kind of one of those unique things, when the course got redesigned … the holes that we used to hit sand wedge, gap wedge in — No. 1, No. 9, sometimes 14, sometimes 17 — you just can’t now.”
BIG THREE BUT NO FIVE: One of the more interesting groups for the opening two rounds of the Masters is McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed. McIlroy is the old man in the group at 24. Spieth is 20. The two “youngsters” are playing their first Masters — in fact, the 23-year-old Reed is playing his first major.
McIlroy looked at it another way.
“There’s going to be no top-5 players in that group,” he declared.
That was a reference to Reed, who declared on national TV after he won at Doral that he felt he was one of the top five players in the world. McIlroy is at No. 9, Spieth is at No. 13 and Reed is at No. 23.