The 2014 Masters is set to get underway at picturesque Augusta National Golf Club. The season's first major has a unique feel this year without the presence of Tiger Woods, the annual favorite despite his major championship drought.
There isn't a clear top dog in the field without Woods, who's out due to a back injury. Reigning champion Adam Scott leads a star-studded field that also features plenty of fellow big names, such as Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy, but nobody stands clearly above the rest.
It should create a unique atmosphere and lead to another thrilling finish at Augusta. Knowing that, let's check out the top five groups for the opening two rounds (tee times via Masters.com) and project where all of the potential contenders in them will stand heading into the weekend.
2014 Masters Leaderboard
1. Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Justin Rose
Round 1: 1:48 p.m. ET and Round 2: 10:30 a.m. ET
As you'd expect, the absence of Woods has been a major talking point leading up to the tournament. Mickelson has battled the 14-time major champion on these stages throughout their respective careers, and Bob Harig of ESPN passed along Mickelson's comments about how it feels without Woods:
It's a weird feeling not having him here, isn't it? He's been such a mainstay in professional golf and the majors. It's awkward to not have him here. I hope he gets back soon. I mean, I hope he's back for the other majors, and as much as I want to win and I know how great he is and tough to beat it ... it also makes it special when he's in the field and you're able to win.
Mickelson has conquered Augusta three times, and the road gets a little easier without Woods. Some of his toughest competition could very well come from within his own group as he's paired with Rose, last year's U.S. Open champ, and Els, a four-time major winner.
Projection After Round 2: Rose (-4), Mickelson (-3), Els (Even)
2. Bubba Watson, Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia
Round 1: 1:15 p.m. ET and Round 2: 9:57 a.m. ET
This is what would probably best be described as a boom-or-bust group. All three players in it could just as easily contend for the title as they could miss the cut. They all run hot and cold, meaning it simply comes down to how they play early on this week.
Of the trio, Watson is the best bet to contend after winning the Masters two years ago. He also has six top-10 finishes in nine events this season. Garcia and Donald simply haven't stepped up enough on the big stage to have a ton of confidence in them this week.
Projection After Round 2: Watson (-3), Garcia (Even), Donald (+1)
3. Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson
Round 1: 1:04 p.m. ET and Round 2: 9:35 a.m. ET
Day is the player to watch here. He's due for a breakthrough on the major stage after six top-10 finishes in the marquee events over the past four years. That includes a tie for second and a third-place finish in the Masters. It could finally be his time to shine.
Stenson played extremely well in the second half of last season but hasn't been able to carry that success over to 2014. Johnson puts his talent on display every time out, highlighted by his power, but he struggles to string four good rounds together against elite competition.
Projection After Round 2: Day (-6), Stenson (-2), Johnson (-1)
4. Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy
Round 1: 10:52 a.m. ET and Round 2: 1:59 p.m. ET
Even though McIlroy has never fully replaced Woods as the dominant force on tour, he's still one of the top contenders every time he tees it up. His results at Augusta are mundane, but he came within one terrible round of winning a green jacket in 2011. He should be in the mix again this year.
Reed is an intriguing player. He introduced himself to the mainstream audience by outlasting a great field in the Cadillac Championship. But this is his first major appearance, so expectations should be tempered. The same goes for Spieth, who's coming off a missed cut in the Shell Houston Open.
Projection After Round 2: McIlroy (-4), Spieth (+2), Reed (+4)
5. Adam Scott, Jason Dufner and Matthew Fitzpatrick
Round 1: 10:41 a.m. ET and Round 2: 1:48 p.m. ET
The last seven Masters provided seven different winners. Scott will attempt to end that streak by completing his back-to-back bid. While it's obviously a tough task, Justin Ray of ESPN notes nobody has put themselves in position to win majors more often in recent years:
He's paired with the most recent major winner in Dufner, who came out on top in the PGA Championship to finish the 2013 major slate. Fitzpatrick is a 19-year-old rising star, but it would be a surprise to see him finish high at Augusta at this stage in his career.
Projection After Round 2: Scott (-3), Dufner (Even), Fitzpatrick (+6)
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