–by Michael A. Riley
When the world’s No. 1 golfer and four-time Masters winner announced that he would be skipping this year’s renewal of the storied tournament in Augusta due to back issues, the world wondered if we could be engaged in watching a major championship without Tiger Woods. Yes, the idea of Tiger not being around during a major event did prove deleterious to TV ratings, but Tiger doesn’t need to be on the course for us to witness some thrilling golf! As we get ready to tee off this weekend, we can see this will be a Masters tournament for the ages – as per usual. We saw some favorites missed the cut (Phil Mickelson spent too much time in the sand while Jason Dufner just looked like he didn’t belong out there), a few youngsters making some noise, Rory McIlroy (+4) wobble badly before sinking a par putt on the 18th hole yesterday to make the cut, and a couple of legends turn back time to stay in the hunt. I don’t care how beautiful the spring weather is on Sunday, you will want to be inside near a television to watch this story unfold.
The current leaderboard is cluttered with some familiar names and a few, if not several surprises. Bubba Watson, champion here in 2012, is holding a comfortable three-stroke lead at 7-under after Friday night. Watson reeled off five straight birdies on holes 12 through 16 to shoot a 68 for the day. Nice job! Seven-under is a tremendous score on this course where par appears to be a gift. He knows his way around this course and has a look of confidence and joy that often leads to success in these events.
Speaking of the course itself, the beautiful Augusta National Golf Club suffered some severe damage due to the extreme weather earlier this year, resulting in the removal of many tree limbs and even whole trees, including the famed Eisenhower Tree on the 17th hole. Many thought all of this would result in lower scores, but low scores are few and far between, however.
Sitting just off Bubba is the well-known Australian, John Senden, at 4-under through the first two rounds. Well, probably you don’t know him, so I’ll give you a quick bio. The 42-year-old won a PGA event for the first time since 2006 last month, a win that he needed just to qualify for this tournament. He also placed third in the Australian Open before the turn of the New Year, but that was in his backyard. Despite his fine form, I think the cameras will not be following him on Sunday, and he will not be wearing any green jackets unless he stops at the Target on the Bobby Jones Expressway, named after legendary golfer and Augusta National founder, while he heads to the airport.
Next on the current leaderboard is a logjam of potential winners, with Adam Scott, Thomas Bjørn, Jonas Blixt and Jordan Spieth all at 3-under. Scott has the pedigree, winning the green jacket last year. Enough said. Bjørn, veteran of the international circuit from Denmark, has over 20 international victories and is known for his durability, and can contend in this wide-open affair. As for the Swede, Blixt? I had to look him up. He has won twice on the tour, most recently in the 2013 Greenbrier Classic, which is significant in that some pros believe Greenbrier has a similar “feel” to Augusta. But I see him heading in the other direction this weekend. And then we have Jordan Spieth. He is of course the 20-year-old American phenom who became the youngest to win on the PGA Tour since 1931 when he won the John Deere Classic last July at age 19. His rise to the top of the game at such a young age is remarkable to say the least. How can you not root for the kid from Dallas?
A handful of notables are right there in the hunt as well; Jim Furyk is at 2-under, Matt Kuchar is at even par, while KJ Choi, Stewart Cink, Henrik Stenson and Mike Weir sit at 1-over. All are highly capable of managing this tricky course and squeaking out a win.
But my favorite story so far is the one of Fred Couples. The highly likeable 54-year old won the 1992 Masters and has been a crowd favorite wherever he plays, most recently on The Champions (senior) Tour, where he ended the 2013 season with a championship. Some crafty and gutsy playing on Friday put him in the hunt at 2-under with kids less than half his age. I am rooting for Freddy this weekend! How can you not root for him? But he will not be wearing any green jacket Sunday either. For my money, the lone golfer in Butler Cabin donning the legendary garment will be none other than last year’s winner, Scott. If my prediction does indeed come to fruition, Scott will become only the fourth golfer to successfully defend his title at Augusta, joining Jack Nicklaus, Sir Nick Faldo and Tiger in that rarefied air. We discovered last year he likes this course and appears to be adjusting to the subtleties of it this year nicely.
The unpredictability of this year’s tournament has reflected that of the entire tour: 21 tournaments into the season, and only one player (Zach Johnson) won while he was in the Top 10 in the world. Yes, there’s no Tiger, no Phil and Rory is way back. But this is going to be a fun next couple of days at Augusta. That’s what The Masters is all about.