2014 Masters: Top 10 Storylines

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistApril 6, 2014

2014 Masters: Top 10 Storylines

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    If the Farmers Insurance Open, Waste Management Phoenix Open and Honda Classic just weren’t enough to get golf fans revved up for the 2014 season, another chance comes this week in Georgia.

    The Masters, an event unlike any other, tees off Thursday at Augusta National with no shortage of reasons to tune in—both for the hardcore fan and the one who only watches the majors.

    While the biggest name in the sport for a generation is sitting this one out with the latest in a recent series of injuries, no shortage of high-end players will still participate while bringing with them the requisite number of compelling storylines to track from the first hole through the 72nd.

    Here are 10 of the best.

Wherefore Art Thou, Tiger?

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    Susan Walsh

    Since he emerged from the amateur ranks as a superstar in waiting and began stamping the pro game with a penchant for winning big tournaments by huge margins—see: 1997 Masters—Tiger Woods has been as much a fixture at Augusta as green jackets, blooming azaleas and hushed broadcasters.

    It won’t be the same this year, which is the first since 1994 that Woods won’t be in the field, thanks to recent surgery to repair a pinched nerve in his back. Whether CBS or Augusta National cares to admit it or not, having the world’s most famous golfer as a DNP takes away some luster.

At Least We’ve Got Lefty

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    Patric Schneider

    No doubt to CBS’s relief, television’s most prodigious spokesman for rheumatoid arthritis medication will indeed be in the field at Augusta this week, after staying in contention into the final round of the Shell Houston Open in the final pre-Masters test for his occasionally balky back.

    On his side in 2014 is a weird stretch of even-numbered consistency that’s seen Phil Mickelson win all three of his previous green jackets—and grab three thirds and a fifth—in even-numbered years. Not on his side is the reality that he’s 43 years old, was tied for 54th last year and hasn’t had a top-10 finish this season.

New Kids on the Practice Tee

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    Eric Gay

    Just one less than two dozen players will make their first tour of the Augusta splendor this week, the highest infiltration of Masters rookies since 1935. Seventeen of the 23 players are professionals, and 10 of them are ranked in the world’s top 50, which makes a fresh-faced winner a distinct possibility.

    The last player to win the tournament in his first go-round was Fuzzy Zoeller back in 1979, but among the best bets to end that streak is 20-year-old American Jordan Spieth, who carries a No. 13 world ranking into the fray. He won the John Deere Classic in 2013 and played the British Open a week later.

Didn’t There Used to Be a Tree Here?

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    Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

    The 17th hole at Augusta will no doubt look a mite different to the veterans now that a 65-foot high loblolly tree just more than 200 yards from the tee is no more.

    The “Eisenhower Tree,” named for the former president, who hit into it so often that he suggested its removal, eventually fell victim not to the groundskeeper’s ax, but instead to damage sustained in a February ice storm.

    Its absence changes the dynamic of the fairway on the par-four layout, which tied for ninth-hardest in the tournament’s history in a 2013 analysis by Golfweek.

    The players don't seem to mind. Last year's winner Adam Scott said, via USA Today's Steve DiMeglio“It looks good to me. It’s a little more open. It’s a nice look off the tee.”

Play It Again, Adam

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    Darron Cummings

    They've played the tournament 77 times, so it seems something of a novelty that only three players in that entire multigenerational stretch—Jack Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Tiger Woods (2001-02)—have been able to maintain possession of the green jacket for consecutive years.

    Australian Adam Scott gets the chance to make it a repeating quartet this year after he won the 2013 championship in a two-hole playoff with Angel Cabrera. That win also made Scott the first Aussie to win the event—ending a string of near-misses, most notably by Greg Norman.

My Course, My Rules

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    If Sports Illustrated devotes eight pages of its print real estate to a rules concern—as it did in its April 7 edition—then it must matter to someone.

    The article in question described in painstaking detail the hornet’s nest stirred last year by Tiger Woods’ decision to take a second-round drop on the 15th hole at Augusta that was several yards from where the ball should have been dropped.

    Of course, Woods’ decision to skip the tournament this year takes away much of the fuel for the fire, but it has reignited the passions of those who pay attention to such things—and it’s a safe bet that crowd will be watching extra closely to make sure the guidelines are being adhered to in 2014.

To Be the Man, You’ve Got to Win the Masters

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Though the world’s No. 1 player, Tiger Woods, will not be in the field when the tournament gets going Thursday, the race to emerge from the weekend with the title “World’s Best Golfer” will still be run in his absence.

    Two players, defending champion Adam Scott and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, could elevate to No. 1 in the world based on their finishes at Augusta. For Scott, it’s the third time he’s entered a tournament with a chance to take over the top spot, a task he’s failed to complete the first two times.

A Belated St. Patrick’s Celebration

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    Andrew Redington/Getty Images

    Though CBS might be mourning the fact that Tiger Woods isn't playing this year, at least a handful of other golfers in the field might consider it the luck of the Irish. In fact, in four previous majors in which Woods didn't play because of injury, Irishmen won all four.

    The theme held true at the British Open and PGA Championship in 2008—both won by Padraig Harrington—and continued at the 2011 U.S. Open and British Open, which were won by Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke, respectively.

    Harrington and McIlroy have each won one major in which Woods was an active player.

An Early Father’s Day

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    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

    Though father and son pairs have played in the Masters at different times in its 77 incarnations, 2014 will be the first in which a father and son have played in the same event.

    Popular 1982 champion Craig Stadler will return thanks to a lifetime exemption, and he’ll be joined by his 34-year-old son Kevin, who made the field with his inaugural PGA Tour win at the Phoenix Open in February.

    The elder Stadler, now 60, was a 13-time winner on the tour and was its leading money winner in 1982 with a take of $446,462 for the season.

Graduating to Major Success

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    Chris O'Meara

    With the arrival of major tournament season comes the renewal of the four-time annual debate about the best player who’s never broken through to grab one of the golf kingdom’s signature jewels.

    Golf Digest hung the inauspicious title on Henrik Stenson to begin 2014, saying the Swede was “a heavy favorite to be the first person to remove his name” from the list this season. His best previous finish in Augusta has been a tie for 17th, which he accomplished in both 2007 and 2008.