From top to bottom, the 79th Masters tournament offers a fascinating study in contrasts. It starts with Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world trying to win a career Grand Slam this week, and spirals all the way down to Tiger Woods, a 14-time major champion who has plunged to No. 114 in the rankings and hasn’t won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego.
In between, there are a number of players, including defending champion Bubba Watson, who seem to be in peak form coming into Thursday’s opening round at storied Augusta National. They would include a trio of Texans, 2014 runner-up Jordan Spieth, with a win and two second-place finishes in the precocious 21-year-old’s past three tournaments, two-time 2015 PGA Tour winner Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed, with four victories in his first three seasons on the tour.
Many more Americans — U.S. Open runner-up Rickie Fowler, rejuvenated and apparently rehabilitated Dustin Johnson, a nine-time tour winner, and Hunter Mahan, a seven-time champion — and countless other familiar names also should contend. That would definitely include three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, now 44, who missed the cut a year ago but seemed to be getting some form back last week in Houston, where he tied for 17th.
The foreign contingent, with McIlroy at the head of the class, is equally impressive. Australian Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, seems to have adjusted nicely to a switch from his long putter to a short stick. German Martin Kaymer comes in as the defending U.S. Open champion. Another Aussie, Jason Day, was runner-up here in 2011 and third in 2013. And Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, with four top-four finishes in eight starts this season, keeps getting closer all the time to winning his first major. Even Sergio Garcia of Spain, with 24 victories worldwide, has to be considered.
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McIlroy, 25, the pre-tournament favorite for all the obvious reasons, has come close to winning the traditional green jacket. He led after 54 holes in 2011 until soaring to a shocking final-round 80 that pushed him back to a tie for 15th. Last year, with a fourth-round 69, he pushed up to eighth, his best finish in six starts since he began playing here as a 19-year-old, tying for 20th place in 2009.
This week, he also has a chance to win his third major in a row after prevailing last August in the PGA Championship and in the British Open a month before. He clearly seems more than a tad impatient to accomplish that goal.
“I’ve been ready for this thing to start for a week already,” he said on Tuesday. “Some people think I’ve been preparing for this since August 2014 [when he won the PGA]. But the truth is I’ve been dreaming of this all my life. It would be something way beyond my dreams if it worked out.”
McIlroy is off to a dreamy start already this season. He won the Omega Dubai event on the European Tour last month and has five top-11 finishes in his six 2015 tournaments, the only blemish a rare missed cut at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens. He also relishes all the talk about the possibility of joining only five others — Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Woods — as the winner of all four majors.
“There is an interview with me when I was 7 or 8 saying I wanted to win all the majors and be the best golfer in the world,” McIlroy said. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, but just as me. I never wanted to break records. I never looked at someone and said, ‘I want to do that.’ This is just what I wanted to do — win the biggest tournaments in the world and be the best golfer in the world.
“I feel like if you win the four majors, you are pretty much a complete player. You’ve been able to win on different courses, different setups. It sort of feels like if you can win all four … there is not much you can’t do. You are a complete golfer.”
Woods, who turns 40 in December, has certainly been all of that and more. But in recent years he has been wounded both physically and mentally. Woods is playing in his 20th Masters and is a four-time champion, but he hasn’t won one since 2005.
In between, he has had knee and back injuries, gone through a major scandal that led to a divorce and employed three swing instructors. In February, he left the tour after withdrawing from the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego and said “my play, my scores are not acceptable for tournament golf. … I enter a tournament to compete at the highest level, and when I think I’m ready, I’ll be back.”
Despite skeptics among some of his peers that he can’t win majors again, he insisted this week that he does feel ready, willing and able to contend. After all, this is a man who has eight top-10 finishes, including that 2005 victory, in his past nine Augusta National appearances. Watson believes it’s possible for him to bounce back this week.
“This place just brings it out of him,” Watson said this week. “I think Tiger has taken enough time off to where he wants to be back. Obviously, he’s pretty good around this place.”
Woods has spent most of the past two months playing and practicing back home in South Florida.
“We’ve spent a lot of time, a lot of work on this,” he said. “It’s finally paid off. I worked my [tail] off. That’s kind of the easiest way to describe it. I worked hard. … It was a slow and steady progression each and every day. By the time the sun set, I should be a better player than I was in the morning. We don’t need to make big, giant leaps or anything like that. Just incrementally get better.”
Woods seems has been rather loose and relaxed this week. For the first time in 11 years, he participated in the annual Par 3 contest Wednesday, with his two kids, Charlie and Sam, walking with him on the course. He played several practice rounds with his long-time friend Mark O’Meara, and on the range, he was hitting balls accompanied by the sounds of hip-hop on his play list.
“I’m feeling older, there’s no doubt about that,” he admitted. “Try chasing around 6- and 7-year-olds all day, you start feeling it. But the good news is my soccer game has gotten a lot better.”
He’ll know lots more when he tees off in the first round at 1:48 p.m. Thursday. Stay tuned.