The first major of the season is upon us. The dogwoods, the azaleas, the magnolias, the towering pines and oak trees -- Augusta National Golf Club in all its glory for what is sure to be yet another fantastic Masters.
If you like drama (who doesn't?), it doesn't get any better than the back nine on Sunday where Amen Corner can ruin, or boost, the hopes of slipping into a coveted green jacket.
Many have suggested this particular Masters may just be the most wide open in years.
That may be true, but I really like the chances of any one of the five men listed below. Keep an eye on them this week.
5. Justin Rose
Best finish in 2013-14 season: Fifth in the WGC-HSBC Champions
Reason to watch: Rose enters the Masters coming off a missed cut in his last start -- the Arnold Palmer Invitational. That should be cause for concern, right? Sure. But that's also the reason I like the reigning U.S. Open champ to make some noise this week... he's flying under the radar. He's not getting the attention you'd expect a full-on favorite to have. When he's on, few possess the all-around game Rose does. If that comes together this week, I have a feeling England will have its first Masters champ since Nick Faldo in 1996.
4. Phil Mickelson
Best finish in 2013-14 season: T12 at the Shell Houston Open
Reason to watch: It seems almost impossible, but some how, Mickelson has yet to record a top-10 finish this season. There is reason to be optimistic, however. Last week's T12 in Houston is his best this year. Oh yeah, and over the course of his illustrious career, Mickelson has racked up a whopping 14 top-10 finishes in the Masters, including three victories. Augusta National brings out the best in Phil. When he arrives for Masters week, it truly is like an excited kid on Christmas morning.
3. Jason Day
Best finish in 2013-14 season: Won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship
Reason to watch: This week will mark Day's first start since winning the Match Play Championship in February. He hasn't played since due to a thumb injury. Day says the thumb feels great now and that's a terrific sign for the Aussie this week, as he's finished in a tie for second and alone in third in two of his last three Masters trips. Based on that, along with the fact that Day finished in the top 10 at three of the four majors in 2013, it seems as though a major championship win is in Day's very near future. Why not this week?
2. Adam Scott
Best finish in 2013-14 season: Third at the Arnold Palmer Invitational
Reason to watch: For starters, he's the defending champion. He's also got a chance to become the world's No. 1-ranked player and the first player since Tiger Woods in 2001 and 2002 to successfully defend his Masters title. Scott just seems to have his eyes set on winning majors now that he's finally gotten over the hump. Major win No. 2 could very well result in his second Masters.
1. Rory McIlroy
Best finish in 2013-14 season: Playoff runner up at Honda Classic
Reason to watch: What a difference a year makes. After a tumultuous 2013 season, McIlroy is right back on top of his game and clearly a favorite to win this week at Augusta National. Golf is so much more fun to watch when the best players are on top of their respective games and that seems to be where McIlroy is at in 2014. A win at Augusta National would put the 24-year-old three-quarters of the way to a career grand slam.
Follow T.J. Auclair on Twitter, @tjauclair.
One of the great Masters traditions lives on today with the playing of the annual Par 3 Contest.
The idea for the Par 3 Contest came from Augusta National co-founder and former chairman, Clifford Roberts. It debuted in 1960 and was won that year by Sam Snead. The winner receives a crystal bowl.
Believe it or not, winning the Par 3 Contest is somewhat of a curse if you look at history. No player who has won the Par 3 has ever gone on to win the tournament proper that same week.
There are several great aspects about the Par 3 Contest. Here are five of them, in no particular order:
1. The kids. The "cuteness" scale is off the charts during the Par 3 Contest, as many players enlist their children -- toddlers and up -- to play caddie for the day. There's nothing cuter than seeing a 2-year-old dressed in the white Masters coveralls and green Masters hat. Another great part of the Par 3 is that the players will actually let their kids hit some of their putts (of course, those who do forfeit the chance to win, but who cares?).
2. The chance to see a hole in one. The holes range in distance from 70 to 140 yards. And, the pin positions are such that great shots will be rewarded handsomely, making the Par 3 Contest all the more fun and exciting for the patrons. In all, there have been 77 holes-in-one made through the years, including a record five in 2002. Ben Crenshaw and Nick Watney each made aces in 2013.
3. It's not just Masters competitors. That's right -- you might actually see players in the Par 3 Contest that aren't in the Masters field that week and not just former Masters Champions. The field for the Par 3 Contest includes tournament participants, noncompeting past champions and Honorary Invitees (former U.S. Amateur champions, for instance).
4. The legends. For our money, this has got to be the best part of the Par 3 Contest -- the chance to see Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player all in the same threesome. It doesn't get any better than that.
5. The course itself. With the DeSoto Springs Pond and Ike's Pond, this little 9-hole course is a work of art. It's a painting brought to life and probably the most perfectly, most beautifully conditioned short course you'll ever see.
Follow T.J. Auclair on Twitter, @tjauclair.
Shake off the cobwebs, folks. Spring is here, temperatures are rising – albeit slower in some places than others – and it’s time to get out on the course and start playing some golf.
In preparation for your new golf season, we reached out to PGA Master Professional Michael Doctor from Skaneateles Country Club in Skaneateles, N.Y. – the 2013 National PGA Golf Professional of the Year – to find out what can be done to get ready for a successful season on the links, no matter your level of ability.
PGA.com: For those folks in colder winter climates, what advice would you offer up as they prepare for a new golf season?
Doctor: Start with putting. You don’t even have to leave home to work on putting, which is one of the most important elements of the game. Set up an area in your house or office to practice. Invest in a few teaching aids or ask you golf professional if he has any putting aids you might be able to use to help develop your stroke during the off season.
Work on your short game. If you have a place to hit golf balls indoors -- like a dome or even into a net -- spend the majority of your time on the short game. Most domes have targets set up throughout the facility. Work on hitting different kinds of shots to those targets. Most importantly: Make your practice session fun.
PGA.com: Are there any particular exercises you would suggest they work on?
Doctor: I think it’s very important that golfers work with a trainer during the off-season. One of the best things I have ever done for my body, my confidence and my game was joining a workout class three days a week during the winter months. Try to find someone who understands the game of golf or specializes in working with golfers. Walking or running, or any cardio exercise, will be very helpful for building stamina especially for those golfers who like to walk when they play. Develop a stretching program with the help of a trainer to improve flexibility, which is so important when it comes to playing good golf. I personally like working with lightweights, kettle bells, a medicine ball and dumbbells.
PGA.com: What about club maintenance? Is now the time to get new grips? Check loft, lie and shaft? Why is that important?
Doctor: I always like to put new grips on my clubs in the spring. I believe that it’s extremely important that you have the right size grips. I make sure that the grip is the right size for the player but I also believe that it’s very important that the grip feels right to the player. For example: I wear a XX Large golf glove but I like grips that are only slightly oversize in the right hand and standard size in the left hand. It helps me to feel the club head when I swing the club. I take the time to interview the customer. I ask them what type of grip they may like and what they would like the club to feel like when they are swinging it. If they aren’t sure if they will like the grip or I’m not sure of the size, I put one on their favorite iron and let them try it. The golfer’s only contact with the golf club is through the grip. It’s important to make sure they like it and make sure it’s right.
Ask your golf professional to check your wedges for the right loft and bounce. I think the bounce on wedges is extremely important so that they fit the conditions of your home course. I also believe that the shaft in your wedges should be a little softer. Ask your golf professional if he has wedges you can demo.
Ask your golf professional to check the lie on your clubs a couple times a year. Sometimes a swing change might have an effect on your lie angle. Forged irons should be checked more often because they tend to change from use.
PGA.com: How important is it to be properly fit for clubs before the season starts?
Doctor: This is a pet peeve of mine. I don’t believe in fitting clubs inside, hitting golf balls into a net unless you have a launch monitor and video the golf swing. I like to fit outdoors -- I want ball-flight feedback. I like the customer to have practiced a little and maybe played a round or two before the fitting. Once we determine the proper fit I like to have the player take the club on the golf course to see how they like it. If I have a demo set I send the player out with them. I’m guilty of taking my time to be sure we properly fit the golfer. Nothing bothers me more than having a customer play with a set of clubs that don’t properly fit them or they don’t like.
My advice to my customers: don’t be in hurry to buy a set of clubs. Take your time, kick the tires and work with your PGA golf professional to get the best possible set of clubs to make playing golf enjoyable and fun.
PGA.com: Do you encourage golfers of any ability to set goals for a new season?
Doctor: I encourage every one of my students from the youngest to the oldest to set realistic goals for their game. Discuss those goals with your golf professional to be sure they are realistic and set a course to accomplish the goals you agree upon. It’s my job to help the student set realistic goals. I keep using the word “realistic” because nothing will slow down progress faster then setting goals that the student has no possible chance of accomplishing.
Example: I took up running many years ago. I set a goal of running and walking for one hour. At first I walked most of the time. Within a month, I ran three-quarters of the time. In two months, I could run for on hour. I accomplished my goal of running for an hour.
A few years ago, I wanted to improve my putting from six feet. I practiced making putts from two feet then three feet, five and six feet. As I made more and more putts from two, three and five feet, I started making more putts from six feet.
I had a student who was a freshman in high school and played on the golf team. He came for a golf lesson one day and I noticed that he was very upset with his game. When I asked him why, he said he wasn’t playing as well as two of the seniors on the team. We looked at the scores they shot as freshman and I showed him that he was actually playing better as a freshman then they did as freshmen. And if he set realistic goals, he would be better as a senior than they are now. Realistic goals are the key to successes in everything we do in life especially in sports.
Follow T.J. Auclair on Twitter, @tjauclair.
How do you finish off a playoff that gets you an invitation to the Masters? By chipping in over a bunker from 42 yards out for birdie, if you're Matt Jones.
SHELL HOUSTON OPEN: Jones wins playoff, earns trip to Augusta
Of course, that's after making a 46-foot birdie putt on the final hole of regulation to even give himself a chance at the playoff against Matt Kuchar in the first place.
In the playoff, Jones put his tee shot on the No. 18 hole in the right hand fairway bunker, which resulted in missing the green short and to the right. So Jones decided not to mess around.
SUNDAY'S TOP PHOTOS: Shots from the PGA, LPGA and European Tour stops
"I walked up there and told my caddy I was going to chip it in," Jones said afterward.