AUGUSTA, Ga -- . The 77th Masters opens Thursday morning with a wide variety of story lines to pursue. Most notably will be a resurgent Tiger Woods’ pursuit of his fifth green jacket and 15th major title in a week that already has been filled with news of a 14-year-old Chinese lad in the field, the first two female members of the club wandering the grounds and defending champion Bubba Watson once again shedding tears recalling his memorable victory a year ago.
Woods’ quest to win his first Masters since 2005 will become the main focus once Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player start the proceedings by striking a ceremonial opening tee shot before retiring to the clubhouse. Nicklaus, for one, still believes Woods will surpass his record total of 18 major championships.
“I’ve said it and continue to say that I still expect him to break my record,” he said this week. “I think he’s too talented, too driven and too focused on that. He’s played very, very well this spring. I think if he wins here, that would be a very large step toward regaining the confidence that he has not won a major since [the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines].”
Nicklaus also had a strong opinion on Augusta National’s ballyhooed decision last August to admit its first two female members, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina banker Darla Moore, both in attendance.
“I think it’s time,” Nicklaus said. “It was not my call. It was the club’s call, and I think it’s great. I mean Condoleezza Rice is a great gal. I don’t know Darla Moore, but I’m sure I will. And welcome. People that love golf. That’s what it’s supposed to be for.”
At his annual state of the Masters news conference Wednesday, Augusta National chairman Billy Payne, in his first public remarks on the end of the club’s longtime all-male member policy, said he would not comment on the actual process involving the decision. However, he was particularly effusive in his praise of the newest two members.
“At the time, we described that welcoming Condi and Darla as members represented a joyous occasion for the club,” Payne said. “This week, that’s truer than ever. I hope the experience … has been every bit as rewarding and enjoyable for them over the last eight months as it has been for their fellow members. It’s awesome. ... These two ladies have been very special and it’s just been delightful.”
Like almost everyone else on the property, Payne admitted he “had no idea a 14-year-old,” in this case eighth-grader Tianlang Guan of China, would be in the field of 93 this week. One of six amateurs in the tournament, Guan qualified by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in November. Guan is the youngest ever to play the event, eclipsing the mark of then-16-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero in 2010.
While Bubba Watson has not won on the PGA Tour since his victory here last year, he has had a decent 2013 season with five top-20 finishes in his six starts. Still, repeating at Augusta has only been accomplished by three men — Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Woods (2001-02).
“As a competitor, as a believer in my game, then yeah, I can see pulling it off,” Watson said. “It wouldn’t shock me. I would still cry, but it wouldn’t shock me.”
Watson did shed tears during his pre-tournament interview Tuesday when he was talking about reuniting with his then newly adopted son, Caleb, not long after winning his first green jacket.
Watson won his first major by striking a hooked 52-degree wedge out of the trees to within 15 feet of the cup in a playoff against Louis Oosthuizen then two-putted for the victory. Spectators this week have been flocking to the spot where Watson hit that memorable shot, prompting some talk that the club might someday place a plaque there to commemorate one of the greatest strokes of genius in tournament history.