20 years since Tiger Woods' first win
Woods absent with back injury
McIlroy bidding for career grand slam
Masters starts Thursday
Will Rory McIlroy complete the grand slam? Can Dustin Johnson cement his growing status as the sport’s most in-form player? Can Jordan Spieth bounce back from his Masters meltdown?
The Masters, the first men’s major of the year, is a spring-rite, a reunion of the golfing clans – in person or on TV – and the true beginning of the season for many.
The private Augusta National club is the iconic setting, a hilly, verdant corner of Georgia bedazzled by blooming azaleas, dogwoods and magnolias and framed by towering pines.
The hallowed turf, hidden from the concrete, neon and fast-food strip of raffish Washington Road over the fence, is the site of a former indigo plantation and then fruit nursery. That was before the great American amateur Bobby Jones and businessman Clifford Roberts built a golf course in 1933.
No mobile phones, no running
The tournament has its own unique rules and rituals, governed by the Green Jackets, the all-powerful – and wealthy – members of this exclusive club which only admitted its first black member in 1990 and its first women in 2012.
The club exudes genteel southern hospitality but governs with an iron fist. Rules such as no running or mobiles phones are strictly enforced.
Spectators, known as “patrons,” and the media alike must toe the line or face having their badge removed. And with the waiting list for badges long since closed, and a limited ballot for yearly tickets one of the only other viable avenues, the atmosphere is one of deference.
But the welcome is worth it – with affordable on-course catering such as traditional pimento cheese sandwiches for $1.50 and domestic beer costing $3, in a Masters logo-ed cup that patrons collect like trophies.
Other perks include the ability to place your green folding Masters chair around any green and return hours later without worrying you’ve lost your spot.
Burgers, Yorkshire puddings and lobster
Masters week follows a traditional pattern, with patrons flooding the grounds to watch Monday and Tuesday practice.
On Tuesday evening the past winners gather in the 1854-era clubhouse for the Champions Dinner, hosted by the defending champion with a menu typically selected from his homeland.
Sandy Lyle’s haggis in 1989, Woods’ cheeseburgers, fries and milkshakes in 1998 and Adam Scott’s Moreton Bay Bugs (Australian lobster) in 2014 are some of the notable items served up. England’s Danny Willett served up a traditional British roast dinner.
The tournament culminates with the defending champion presenting the winner with a green jacket – a tradition started in 1949 – and membership to one of sport’s most exclusive groups.
Willett landed his first major 12 months ago after emerging from the maelstrom that engulfed Spieth on the back nine on the final day.
Spieth had led the Masters for seven straight rounds stretching back to 2015 and was set to become the first player to land back-to-back titles since Woods in 2002.
On the 10th tee, Spieth held a five-shot lead, but 40 minutes later his advantage was gone.
Spieth bogeyed the 10th and 11th and made a quadruple-bogey seven with two balls in the water at the treacherous short 12th. Willett finished strongly, and though Spieth rallied over the closing holes, he finished three shots behind in second.
The 23-year-old told reporters recently he was looking forward to this year’s Masters being over so people could move on from his meltdown.
“The Masters lives on for a year,” said Spieth, who claims he exorcised his demons at the 12th during a recent visit to Augusta. “It brings a non-golf audience into golf. And it will be nice once this year’s finished to be brutally honest.”
Johnson ‘playing best golf in the world’
Spieth has finished second, first, second in his three appearances at the Masters, but he suggests fellow American Johnson is the man to beat.
World No. 1 Johnson clinched the WGC World Match Play title two weeks ago for a third straight win and goes to Augusta hoping to improve on a best finish of tied fourth last year.
The average age of a Masters winner is 32 – Johnson is 32.
“I think that he is the guy that everyone is saying he’s playing the best golf in the world right now,” Spieth told reporters ahead of last week’s Houston Open.
McIlroy’s grand slam bid
In Woods’ absence, much of the focus will be on McIlroy’s bid for a career grand slam.
The world No. 2 needs the Masters to become only the sixth player complete the set of all four of golf’s major titles, after Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen.
McIlroy’s best finish was fourth in 2015, but he has suffered his own Augusta anguish after blowing a four-shot lead going into the final day in 2011.
Australian Jason Day, ranked three, is set to resume his quest for a first green jacket after missing the World Match Play at the end of March to be with his mother who has cancer.
Meanwhile, Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, who has climbed to a career-high world No. 4, is bidding to become the first Asian-born player to win the Masters. He was tied fifth in 2015.
Three-time champion Phil Mickelson can eclipse the 46-year-old Nicklaus as the oldest winner if he lands his first title since 2010.
Mickelson, who will be 47 in June, was second two years ago and fought that epic, but unsuccessful, battle against Henrik Stenson on the final day of the British Open at Royal Troon last July.
The tournament will begin Thursday tinged with sadness at the passing late last year of four-time winner Arnold Palmer.
Nicklaus and Player will conduct the ceremonial opening drives without their partner from golf’s so-called “Big Three” of yesteryear.
“It’s a very awkward feeling to not have Arnold actually be here,” said Mickelson this week of Palmer’s absence.
“You feel his presence, his display, his showcase in the champions locker room. His jacket, clubs, scorecards from past victories; his spirit is here. It always will be here.”