Fun and games got the festivities underway in Wednesday's Par 3 Contest, but the time for rest and relaxation has ended at Augusta. Thursday marks the beginning of the most storied tournament in all of professional golf, and the 2013 iteration of the Masters may be the most competitive in recent memory.
Tiger Woods heads into the week as a strong favorite, but is met by just about every great golfer on the PGA Tour. Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson are both expected to give Woods a run for his money, meaning every good golf fan worth his weight in Rickie Fowler pants will be watching the action.
The Masters have gone out of their way to make the tournament as accessible as possible this weekend. There will be a live stream running on Masters.com throughout the weekend, giving fans an up-to-the-second look at all the action—even things that aren't televised.
Nevertheless, there are few things in this world that top seeing Augusta on a massive plasma screen TV. High-definition does wonders for the aesthetic appeal of all golf courses, which of course goes tenfold for arguably the most storied course in the sport's history. Live streams are great and everything, but barring actually being at the tournament, television remains the most enjoyable medium for the Masters.
With players hitting the links in mere hours, here is a complete breakdown of Thursday's television coverage and a few players worth watching in the first round.
Complete Television Schedule for Thursday
|11 a.m. - 1 p.m. ET||On the Range||CBS Sports|
|3 p.m. - 7 p.m. ET||Live Masters Coverage||ESPN|
|8 p.m. - 11 p.m. ET||Repeat Masters Coverage||ESPN|
Golfers to Watch
Heading into Thursday's action, Watson has to be wondering when he turned into Trevor Immelman. It's hard to think of a time a defending Masters champion has flown this far under the radar, especially considering the stirring way Watson won his green jacket a year ago.
In one of the better finishes in recent major history, Watson came out and shot a brilliant score of 68 before defeating Louis Oosthuizen in a playoff to walk away with the 2012 title. Last year's tournament rewarded steadiness and Watson shot four under-par rounds in a slow build to his triumph.
And if the scores stay low in 2013, Watson could be a major contender. In his four appearances at Augusta, Watson has shot just two rounds that were worse than one over, one of which was a two-over 74.
Watson's steadiness may prove critical on Thursday. The weather forecast has gone increasingly dire as the week progressed, as rain is expected throughout the first two rounds, according to AccuWeather. Rain is not expected to begin until later in the afternoon on Thursday, which could come at an advantage to those playing early in the morning. (Watson tees off with the fifth group of the day at 8:44 a.m. ET.)
If scores tend to rise throughout the day, which will depend a great deal on the type of rainfall at Augusta, Watson could be in a great position to repeat after the first day. He'll be looking to be the first repeat champion since Tiger Woods, joining a list that also includes Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo. That's an awfully heady stratosphere to join for a player who has only six professional wins coming into this weekend.
Nonetheless, last year proved Watson is not to be discounted at Augusta. And if his hole-in-one on Wednesday is any indication, luck may prove to be on Watson's side again on Thursday.
Getting to the weekend with a red score won't be a problem for McIlroy if recent history is any indication. McIlroy has gone a combined eight-under in the first round at Augusta in his past two starts, taking a comfortable standing after his first 18 holes. His Fridays have also been fantastic, carding an average score of 69 in 2011 and 2012.
Where McIlroy goes tumbling like a toddler just learning to walk has been the weekend. He's carded a combined 15-over score the last two years on Saturday and Sunday, taking himself seemingly from the precipice of a green jacket to an afterthought.
The small sample size taken here is somewhat disconcerting, but McIlroy's consistent failures on the weekend are noteworthy. He's been a player who has matured—or not matured—as the public light shone brightest, and McIlroy has not always handled himself in the best fashion. Even earlier this year McIlroy petulantly withdrew from the Honda Classic when it became obvious he would be cut.
The former world No. 1 finished second at the Texas Open last week and has generally looked fine since that incident. But McIlroy is still winless in 2013, has finished outside the top 30 in 60 percent of his tournaments this year and will be facing massive expectations as one of the favorites.
That collection of mitigating factors makes McIlroy's opening round critical. He's playing in one of the last groups of the day, meaning he may run into rainfall as he progresses through the round. Poise and composure are the only way to navigate those difficulties; pure talent can only take him so far.
And even if downfall gets to the point where play is suspended, McIlroy's fragile psyche will need as much positive reinforcement as possible. Contenders can't have awful opening rounds anyway, but McIlroy's arguably matters more than any of his fellow contenders.
Heading into every major tournament, Woods faces an interesting dichotomy between reality and expectation. Tiger is expected to win every tournament he enters; capturing 25 percent of majors is equal to one per year.
He's obviously used to this pressure at this point in his career—a decade-and-a-half of excellence will do that to an athlete—but this year may be the first time in a while where reality and expectations are in line. Even most golf insiders, the guys who historically take non-Tiger players just to say they didn't take him, have acknowledged Woods' place atop the golf landscape is very well deserved.
Two of ESPN's five experts have picked Woods to take home the green jacket this year, with plenty more locking him into a guaranteed top-10 finish. Though Woods is a near-guarantee to have one of the 10 best scores at Augusta every year—he's finished inside the top six in seven of the past eight Masters tournaments—it's his level of play in 2013 that has most experts swooning.
In four stroke-play tournaments he's entered this year, he's finished first in three of them. Woods has eviscerated courses that he's renowned at—Bay Hill, Doral and Torrey Pines—and will look to do the same at the place he captured his first major title.
By now, most have gotten used to Woods' forte at Augusta. He normally cards somewhere in the low-to-mid 70s on Thursday—Tiger has exactly one first-round score in the 60s in his entire career at the Masters—before staying in mid-contention on Friday and then rip-roaring his way through the field over the weekend.
It's become rather typical. That being said, Woods has exactly zero green jackets since 2005. Carding mid-70s scores doesn't work anymore; not when the field is arguably the best it's been during Woods' entire career. There are too many great golfers and even the middle of the pack is champing at El Tigre's heels hoping to get one over.
If Woods scores an over-par round on Thursday, it won't bode well for his weekend. However, if he bucks his career trend and somehow winds up at 68 or 69, he may skate his way to a fifth Masters title.