Stars align as anticipation builds for Masters

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(David Cannon/ Getty Images)

The opening line in a book David Owen wrote 17 years ago about the Masters captures why the anticipation for the first major at Augusta National.

“The modern golf season never ends, but it does begin.”

That rings particularly true this year.

The fall is forgotten. The preliminaries are over. For some, the Masters could not get here soon enough.

It felt that way when the 2015 majors ended last August with Jason Day winning the PGA Championship in a one-sided duel and a record score to par. Jordan Spieth opened the new year with an eight-shot victory in Hawaii, right as the Masters began airing TV promos with those moody piano notes.

For three months, just about every tournament was a reminder of the showdown looming amid the azaleas and dogwoods.

“I don’t know if it’s a free-for-all,” Adam Scott said. “I think it’s an exciting lead-up to the Masters with a lot of top players in great form and a lot of stories there, probably more so than the past few years.”

The top of golf is so tight at the moment that Westgate Las Vegas Sportsbook has three co-favorites – Day, Spieth and Rory McIlroy – with 7-1 odds to win the green jacket. All in their 20s, they have won five of the last six majors, which is why they have been referred to as the modern version of the “Big Three.”

Only now they have company.

Bubba Watson won at Riviera, reviving memories of his two Masters victories in the last even-numbered years. Scott tabbed him as the favorite, even as the Australian won in back-to-back weeks to start the Florida swing. And then along came Day, who won his last two starts before the Masters to return to No. 1 in the world.

“I am looking forward to it. I know it’s one tournament that I’ve always wanted to win, so the motivation and the want … there’s no problem,” Day said. “I can’t get comfortable with how I’m playing right now. I can’t get lazy, because I’ve got to understand that what I’m doing is working. So I’ve got to keep working … and then stay focused and hopefully put on the green jacket.”

The only player among the top six in the world without a victory is McIlroy, who has had three good chances to win in the last six weeks. He returns to Augusta with another shot at becoming only the sixth player in history to complete the career Grand Slam.

Not to be overlooked is three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, who narrowly missed winning at Pebble Beach and looks rejuvenated at 45.

“There are more guys in the conversation,” Scott said. “There are so many that I’d be surprised if some or all of these guys aren’t there come Sunday, from Bubba to Jason to Jordan.”

So many top players are performing so well that this will be the smallest field at Augusta National in at least 10 years. PGA Tour winners automatically qualify for the Masters, but in the 12 tournaments to start the year, every winner already was eligible except for Augusta resident Vaughn Taylor, who won at Pebble Beach as an alternate.

Seven of the top 14 players in the world already have won this year.

That’s not much different from four years ago when eight of the top 20 had won early in the year, including McIlroy, Mickelson and Tiger Woods. Only one of those players, Mickelson, was in contention that year.

For all its magic, Augusta manages to keep everyone guessing. The last No. 1 player to win the Masters was Woods in 2002.

The original “Big Three” featured Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, and it was as much about marketing as the majors they won. It’s too soon to hang that tag on players still in their 20s, though all of them have won majors and have traded turns at No. 1.

The youth movement in golf, however, is as much about depth.

“I think you’ve got more good players right now than you’ve had in a while,” Nicklaus said.

Nicklaus and Woods are the only players over the last 50 years to have won back-to-back heading into Augusta, and then won the Masters. That’s what is facing Day, the 28-year-old Australian who has an exquisite short game to complement his power.

His victories have taken a little attention away from Spieth, who is chasing his own slice of history as he tries to join Nicklaus, Woods and Nick Faldo as the only Masters champions to repeat. The 22-year-old is playing the Masters for only the third time.

As a rookie, he had a two-shot lead with 11 holes to play and was on the cusp of becoming the youngest Masters champion until Watson chased him down. Last year, Spieth was so dominant in his wire-to-wire victory that he set the 36-hole record, tied the 72-hole record and never let anyone closer to him than three shots over the final three days.

Expectations are one thing. The real hurdle for Spieth is the competition.

“I think this year’s Masters might be the hardest one to win in quite a while as far as the depth of the field and the quality of golf being played by people who play Augusta National very well,” Spieth said. “Everybody wants it badly.”