It’s early April and the subject is Augusta National Golf Club.
Must be time for The Masters.
The annual rite of spring commences on Thursday, harkening memories of the greatest in golf and how all have at one time tackled Augusta National. The roll-call of past Masters winners reads like a ;who’s who of the sport: Jack Nicklaus (six wins), Arnold Palmer (four wins), Tiger Woods (four wins), Gary Player (three wins), Phil Mickelson (three wins), Nick Faldo (three wins), Sam Snead (two wins), Ben Hogan (two wins), Byron Nelson (two wins), Tom Watson (two wins), Seve Ballesteros (two wins), Jose Maria Olizabal (two wins). On and on the list goes.
There is also something comforting about the routine at Augusta in an ever-changing sports world. The smells of the azaleas, dogwood and magnolia. Towering pines. Vast elevation changes. The Masters is a treat for the senses as much as a treat for the golf.
Once again, CBS will be on hand for weekend coverage, as it has since 1956, with ESPN providing coverage for the Thursday and Friday rounds.
This writer recalls the action as far back as the mid ‘60s, when Palmer won his last Masters in 1964. Other memorable Augusta moments include Gay Brewer’s win in 1967, when none other than oldtimer Hogan made a charge; Bob Goalby’s dramatic win in 1968, when it looked like his nervy four-foot putt on 18 simply forced a playoff with the Argentinian, Roberto di Vicenzo, until a subsequently-discovered error on the South American’s scorecard gave Goalby the win; George Archer’s “giveaway” Masters in 1969; Billy Casper beating Gene Littler in a playoff in 1970; Charles Coody’s late charge for an improbable win in 1971.
The fact the tour returns to this same spot every year adds to the allure and the nuances of Augusta National, where course knowledge means not only where you have to hit the ball, but where you don’t want to hit the ball.
Anticipation is always high for The Masters, but it’s even higher this April after Tiger Woods got back in the win column for the first time in 30 events with his success two weeks ago in Arnold Palmer’s event at Bay Hill in Orlando. Woods enters this week’s action at Augusta as the favorite.
Here’s a quick rundown on some of favorites, capable longshots, and their prospects entering Augusta National later this week; included are individual win odds.
Tiger Woods (5/1): He’s back, driving the ball like the old Tiger at Bay Hill. Moreover, Woods looks a much more content fellow these days, even moving to smile on the course. Woods also wasn’t spraying the ball at Bay Hill, and as long as he keeps the balls on the fairway as he did two weeks ago in Orlando, he’s a deserving favorite.
Rory McIlroy (13/2): It remains to be seen if McIlroy will become spooked at Augusta National as he was in the final round last April when hitting an 80 and blowing what looked like a safe lead. He proved his resilience after that collapse by winning the US Open two months later and is a tour winner within the last month at the Honda Classic. Certainly cannot be dismissed.
Phil Mickeslon (12/1): ”Lefty” has won at Augusta in dramatic fashion in the past and can never be overlooked. Mickelson’s recent 64 in the closing round of the AT&T at Pebble Beach, when paired with Woods, no less, indicates the ex-Arizona State Sun Devil is not far from his top form. Tied for fourth last week at Houston, so evidence suggests he’s ready.
Luke Donald (16/1): The current world’s number one rated player, Donald still seeks his first major. Luke’s game has always figured to someday translate to Augusta. Not a long hitter, but deadly accurate.
Lee Westwood (22/1) and Sergio Garcia (55/1): Westwood has perhaps overtaken Garcia as the longest-serving top-notch world golfer to never win a major. Is this the year Augusta changes that dynamic for one of these two?
Hunter Mahan (33/1): We never want to dismiss a recently-hot performer. This year’s flavor is thus the capable ex-Oklahoam State Cowboy Mahan, off of an impressive win last week at the Shell Open in Houston and a two-time winner on the tour this season, having also won the Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona in February.
Adam Scott (33/1): Added intrigue attached to Scott now that he employs Tiger’s ex-caddy Steve Williams. How about Woods-Scott pairing on Saturday or Sunday? Would Tiger and Williams exchange glances? Or glares?
Charl Schwartzel (45/1): Just when it looked like we might be looking at a six-man playoff last April, the South African Schwartzel cans four birdies to steal the title. Not in top form yet this season (he’s missed three of five cuts), but as the list at the beginning indicates, players have been known to win his event on multiple occasions.
Angel Cabrera (90/1): He’s been under the radar for a while, but there was a Cabrera sighting last week at Houston, when he was in contention for a while before imploding in the third round. It was his best finish (tied for 21st) of the season to date.
Fred Couples (175/1): Old University of Houston buddy Jim Nantz would certainly get a kick out of describing Couples being in contention to the CBS audience. Unlikely? Probably. Impossible? Hardly, considering that Freddie has only missed the cut once at Augusta, won a senior event a few weeks ago, and was competitive for the first couple of rounds last week in Houston.
And just the sort of recurring storyline (with different characters) that makes The Masters so special. Stay tuned.