The azalea’s are beginning to blossom, the dogwood trees are appropriately trimmed, the zoysia grass is flawlessly cut, and Magnolia Lane is brilliantly lined with breathtaking magnolia trees as the 75th annual Masters tournament is set to be played at historic Augusta National Golf Club beginning Thursday. Defending South African champion Charl Schwartzel will look to thwart off Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, and world number 1 Luke Donald en route to a 2nd green jacket.
This year’s Masters likely will be the most anticipated Masters in recent memory. Tiger Woods, fresh off a blow out win just two weeks prior at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a win many called the beginning of Tiger’s return to dominance, is seeking his 5th green jacket. Phil Mickelson is coming off a 5th place finish at the Shell Houston Open last week, and Mickelson always seems to save his best for Augusta National. 22 year old Rory McIlroy, who blew a final round 4 shot lead by shooting an 80 on Sunday at last year’s Masters, has dominated the European tour this spring with 3 victories, all of which by 3 strokes or more. Oh yeah, and the world’s number one ranked player, Luke Donald, is in the field at Augusta this week as well.
But like every Masters tournament that has preceded this one, the tournament is not about the players; it’s about the golf course. The course never changes, yet it remains a challenge for the most skilled golfers on the planet. There simply is no other golf course in the world that can literally take your breath away just by walking the grounds. As young American golfer Rickie Fowler said upon shooting an 81 in last year’s 2nd round, “I couldn’t even get mad at myself for not playing well…just the fact that I’m actually here, playing golf at the Masters makes you forget about everything negative. It’s almost surreal.”
Don’t tell that to Tiger Woods though. His rationale for why Augusta National is his favorite golf course in the world? He wins, and wins a lot. Woods has dawned the green jacket an astounding 4 times, 2nd most all-time only to the great Jack Nicholas. Phil Mickelson has been Masters Champion 3 times, third all-time behind the aforementioned Nicholas and Woods.
Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Justin Rose, and Hunter Mahan, all of which are currently in the top 10 in the world golf rankings, would love to give the victory speech at Butler’s Cabin come Sunday afternoon. Donald, Westwood, Rose, and Mahan are from 4 different nations, but share a common bond that none of them are boasting; they are the only 4 players in the history of golf to have at least 10 worldwide professional tournament championships, yet none have a major title to their name. Along with Donald, Westwood, Rose, and Mahan, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy will be watched intently by all at Augusta this week. Since McIlroy’s remarkable and historic win at the U.S. Open at Congressional last June, members of the media and golf fans have compared the two players ad nauseum.
“I love Rory, me and him talk all the time. We stay in touch even if he’s over in Europe and I ask him how things are going. Hell, we’ll probably play a practice round this week, we teach each other things. Ever since I met the kid when he was 19 I knew he was going to be special,” Woods said at his Masters introductory press conference Sunday.
McIlroy has repeatedly stated that while growing up in Hollywood, Ireland, he idolized Tiger Woods for as long as he can remember. “He’s who I always wanted to be, sometimes I still can’t believe I have a personal relationship with him,” McIlroy said last August.
Despite the fact that McIlroy and Woods seem to have a healthy, honest relationship, golf fans everywhere want to see Rory and Tiger stare each other down on the back nine at Augusta on Sunday. Ever since the late 90’s when Woods began his reign of dominance, no other golfer rose to the forefront to consistently challenge Tiger. Phil Mickelson would occasionally catch fire and win a tournament, but Phil was never consistent enough to maintain his position at the top. McIlroy, I believe, has staying power.
The books in Vegas like Tiger Woods to win his 5th Masters at 5 to 2 odds, with McIlroy coming in a distant second at 11 to 1. However, those two aren’t the only players I like to take home the green jacket Sunday. Jason Day, Keegan Bradley, and Sergio Garcia all have as good a chance as anybody in the field this week. Bradley, whom many tab as the future of American golf, proved he could compete at a championship caliber level when he won the PGA Championship at the age of 23 last August. The Aussie Day has placed 2nd at Augusta National two consecutive years, and looks to be entering the peak years of his career. Garcia has been painfully close to winning the Masters on several occasions, having placed in the top 5 in six of his nine appearances at Augusta. This could be the year he finally breaks through and claims the green jacket.
The Masters champion is often decided on the back 9 on Sunday. Even non-golf fans make it a point to watch the final hours of tournament coverage on Sunday afternoon. The player to dawn the green jacket Sunday afternoon at Butler’s cabin will have faced and conquered the test of Amen Corner, the daunting redbud tree’s that line the 17th hole, and the challenging elevation changes on the 18th green. No matter if it’s Tiger Woods or Vietnamese amateur champion Sung Baen, who is playing in his first professional major tournament at Augusta this week, (no disrespect, Mr. Baen) Augusta National will offer thrills that cannot be duplicated in the golf world.