This Masters feels more wide open than ever
By Doug Ferguson, Associated Press
This Masters is all about a green jacket, not a red shirt.
Tiger Woods, who has slipped that coveted coat over his Sunday shirt four times, was finishing up high school in southern California the last time he wasn't at Augusta National for the Masters. That was 20 years ago.
Jose Maria Olazabal won the Masters in 1994, making him the 14th player to win the last 14 majors. Greg Norman was No. 1 in the world, but golf didn't have anyone truly dominating the game. Phil Mickelson was 23 and already had three PGA Tour victories, but he missed the Masters with a broken leg from a skiing accident.
The landscape is so much different without Woods and his red shirt, the power color he has worn in every final round of his career.
He already was hobbling on his road to the Masters. Woods withdrew from the Honda Classic in the final round with lower back pain. He withdrew as two-time defending champion at Bay Hill before the tournament. And nine days before the opening round of the Masters, the world's No. 1 player disclosed he had surgery for a pinched nerve in his back that will keep him out of golf until the summer.
"Tiger in any golf tournament creates an unbelievable atmosphere," said Steven Bowditch of Australia, who qualified for Augusta National after winning the Valero Texas Open. "To not have him there at the Masters is not the greatest."
Golf goes on.
The 78th Masters, which starts on Thursday, typically brings the most anticipation of any of the four majors and gets the highest television ratings. It sets the tone for the year, and it was seen as particularly important for Woods, who is going on six years without a major.
The anticipation is different now. Maybe it's more of a curiosity. The Masters has the smallest field of the four majors – 96 players this year – and for years had the shortest list of candidates to win the green jacket.
Now, the list keeps getting longer.
"I don't think it's just the Masters," Rory McIlroy said. "Golf in general is just very wide open at the moment."
In some respects, the landscape is not much different from when Woods last missed the Masters.
Twenty-one players have won the last 24 majors, with only Mickelson, McIlroy and Padraig Harrington winning more than one since 2008. Woods remains No. 1 in the world on the strength of eight wins in the last two years, though he has won only once in the last 11 months as his body slowly has started to break down.
Winning has never appeared to be more difficult – for everyone.
In the last 20 tournaments on the PGA Tour, the only multiple winners are Jimmy Walker (three times) and Patrick Reed (twice). Both will be at the Masters for the first time. Reed, who wears a red shirt and black pants on Sunday as a tribute to Woods, has never played in any major.
In the last month alone, McIlroy and Masters champion Adam Scott have lost leads in the final round to players outside the top 100 in the world – McIlroy to Russell Henley in a playoff at the Honda Classic, Scott to Matt Every at Bay Hill.
As for Woods and Mickelson?
Golf's biggest stars for the last two decades, with seven Masters between them, are winless this year. Mickelson has a 2-1 advantage over Woods in a most peculiar category: Withdrawing in the middle of a tournament. He had to quit at Torrey Pines and San Antonio, both times with a back injury.
It's almost as if golf is waiting for a new star to emerge.
"You look at the winners on tour the last few months, it's been a different guy each week," McIlroy said. "We've seen players in the past like Tiger and Vijay (Singh) winning nine, 10 times a year. Haven't seen much of that since. You know, it's harder to win out here.
"It would be nice to see someone sort of break away. I hope it's me."
McIlroy has assumed the role as the betting favorite. He knows his way around Augusta National. Three years ago, Boy Wonder took a four-shot lead into the final round only to close with an 80. He bounced back to win the U.S. Open by eight shots that summer, and then added an eight-shot win at the PGA Championship a year later. And after a troublesome year with new equipment and off-course distractions, his game appears to be back on track.
Scott and Henrik Stenson have a chance at the Masters to replace Woods at the top of the world ranking. Neither has won a tournament this year. In fact, Jason Day is the only player from the top seven in the world to have won, and he hasn't played in the six weeks since winning the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship because of a thumb injury.
It's been a strange season heading into the first major.
When he was just starting out his pro career, Scott played a practice round with Woods before the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, which Woods won by a record 15 shots. Scott put the notion of being No. 1 out of his head. Now it's different. Equipment is better. Players are better. What once seemed unfathomable is within reach.
"There's a different benchmark that may not seem as high," Scott said. "The depth of talent, that talent pool is much bigger now. And I can see maybe because that benchmark doesn't seem as high, a lot more guys are working harder to get there. Because more guys think they can."