AUGUSTA, Ga. – A quick stroll across the manicured landscape of Augusta National afforded a glimpse of why this Masters is so hard to figure out.
On the putting green in a quiet moment of practice was 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, one of a record 24 newcomers who has every reason to believe he can win. On the golf course for the final day of practice was Webb Simpson, a former U.S. Open champion and one of 21 players who have captured the last 24 majors.
And under the oak tree outside the clubhouse was Miguel Angel Jimenez, the 50-year-old Spaniard trying to make sense of it all.
He recalled his first Masters in 1995, when Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal shared secrets to Augusta National, such as keeping the ball in the right spots on the green and “to realize here that the target is not the hole.”
“The more you play, the more you like, no?” Jimenez said as he leaned against his golf bag, looking relaxed as ever behind his aviator sunglasses.
But as he considered the rookies – Spieth and Patrick Reed, Harris English and Jimmy Walker – he dismissed the notion that experience was required for a green jacket.
“There are 24 guys here for the first time,” he said. “But there’s a reason they are here, no?”
Nowhere to be found, of course, was Tiger Woods.
Out of golf until the summer because of back surgery, out of the Masters for the first time in his career, the show goes on.
“Well, we miss Tiger, as does the entire golf world,” Masters chairman Billy Payne said. “He is always a threat to make a run and do well and win here at Augusta National. … Nevertheless, this is the Masters. This is what we hope is the best tournament in the world, one of the greatest sporting events. And I think we will have a very impressive audience and have another great champion to crown this year.”
The course closed for practice Wednesday afternoon, and a stream of fans made their way over to the Par 3 Tournament, where occasional cheers broke the silence. It was a precursor of what was sure to follow over the next four days at a major that rarely fails to deliver drama.
Even without Woods.
“It’s probably the most anticipated week of the year,” Rory McIlroy said. “It’s been eight months since we’ve had a major. It’s Augusta. … There’s a lot of guys that seem like once they drive up Magnolia Lane here, something lights up inside them.”
That could be Phil Mickelson, who last year won the British Open at age 42 and now has a chance to join Woods and Arnold Palmer with a fourth green jacket. It could be Adam Scott, trying to join Woods, Nick Faldo and Jack Nicklaus as the only back-to-back winners.
Considering how this year has gone, it could be anybody.
Jason Day, Sergio Garcia and former Masters champion Zach Johnson are the only players from the top 10 who have won anywhere in the world. Only one of the last seven winners on the PGA Tour was ranked in the top 75.
“I think if you’re outside the top 50 in the world this week, you’ve got a great chance,” U.S. Open champion Justin Rose said with a laugh.
Rose, however, falls on the side of experience – knowing where to miss, knowing where you can’t afford to miss, where the hole locations tend to be on the contoured greens and using the slope to get the ball close.
“Always you can have the unknowns,” he said. “But I would say 15 guys are pretty strong favorites.”
Woods has become a polarizing figure in golf, especially at the Masters. Since he last won a green jacket in 2005, only once has Woods finished out of the top six. That’s what made him so compelling at Augusta. He always seems to be there.
And that’s why this Masters seems to lack definition.
No one is dominating golf at the moment. Walker has the most PGA Tour wins (three) this season, but this is his first Masters. Scott had a chance to go to No. 1 in the world three weeks ago at Bay Hill, but he lost a three-shot lead in the final round to Matt Every, who had never won in his career.
Never has there been this much chatter about Masters rookies. Then again, there has never been this many. And they’re not bashful about their chances.
“Doesn’t matter if you’ve played here once or if you’ve played here 50 times,” Reed said. “When it comes down to it, it’s just going to be that whoever is playing the best is going to walk away with the trophy.”
So maybe it’s not that hard to figure out, after all.