Today marks one of the most anticipated mornings in all of sport: opening round at the Masters. Still the major golf tournament with the most cache stateside, the Masters is one of a select few events on our sporting calendar with unspoiled pageantry.
No blade of grass is out of place. The breeze is neither nonexistent nor overwhelming. Everyone has a plastered grin on their faces, as if they're about to ask you into their home for Sunday dinner and a three-hour post-dinner conversation about nothing in particular.
I cannot tell you how many times I've sat there, head cocked at the TV screen, looking at how pristine it all is and looked up rental places in Augusta, Ga. (Verdict: Not that expensive, surprisingly.)
But not every experience is perfect, and the 2014 Masters has the looming cloud of Tiger Woods' absence. Woods hasn't donned a green jacket in nine years and lacks a major the last six, but it's been two decades since his last absence. To put that in a personal perspective: I had not even reached kindergarten.
Defending champion Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and others still lead a star-studded show. Woods has just become so all-consuming that he's essentially the orbit around which the golf world rotates.
That said, Woods' absence does open up a sense of excitement. Even though he's one player, the word everyone keeps throwing around this week is "wide open." With that in mind, let's check in on a few prominent groups and highlight when and where you can watch Round 1 at Augusta.
When: Thursday, April 10
Where: Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga.
Television Schedule: 3-7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Stream: Masters Live
Day 1 Pairings of Note
Adam Scott, Jason Dufner and Matthew Fitzpatrick (10:41 a.m. ET)
Last year, Adam Scott's trip to Augusta was a coronation. After years of coming thisclose to finally capturing his elusive first major, Scott shot 69 as the field around him collapsed on Sunday, putting a proud country on his back. Scott is the first Australian in history to wear a green jacket.
With a history of heartbreak and close calls similar to Scott's, Greg Norman recently recounted the moment in an interview with ESPN's Bob Harig:
It was huge for golf. Adam, Augusta, Australia and golf. Because we had not checked a box on winning the Masters as a major championship. So we checked that box. Finally Australia has produced the goods, and being in the position of world golf where we do produce the quality of players where we've won every major championship, and it's hugely important from our professional pride.
Scott now opens Thursday's round with history again staring him in the face. Not since Woods in 2001 and 2002 has a player repeated as Masters champion. In the history of the event, only Woods, Nick Faldo and Jack Nicklaus have gone back-to-back.
Joining that list is no small deal. Woods and Nicklaus are the two greatest golfers in history. Faldo is among the sport's most underrated figures. How Scott handles the pressure—along with being a co-favorite with Rory McIlroy, per OddsShark—will be one of the more interesting subplots of Round 1.
Not that his playing partners are necessarily boring.
Dufner is a writer's dream of a player and is golf's last major winner, having taken the 2013 PGA Championship. His career record is more down than up—his best finish is 20th—but Dufner has surprisingly played the event just three times. A late bloomer at age 37, Dufner may be rounding into form just in time to be in contention.
Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, is more than just a green-eared amateur. He was the low amateur at last year's Open Championship and is the defending U.S. Amateur champion. The 19-year-old Englishman should become much more of a fixture on the national circuit in the coming years.
"He doesn't seem to be in awe of the week or the venue," McIlroy told Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune. "He seems very level-headed. I just told him to enjoy it."
This is McIlroy's tournament. Without Woods and with Phil Mickelson struggling to find his stroke, McIlroy is not only a favorite, he's the biggest star in the event. A final pairing between Mickelson and McIlroy on Sunday has replaced the "Tiger Woods and a broom" as the one most desired by television networks and advertisers. The pressure is on.
McIlroy's ability to handle it is a debate for a lengthy medium.
Here's what we know: McIlroy is roughly a year-and-a-half removed from his last PGA Tour win; he's the world's ninth-ranked golfer just barely a year after being No. 1; he finished outside the top 10 in three of four majors in 2013; his mental maturity sure ain't well beyond his years; four of his last six weekend rounds at the Masters have been 76 or higher.
Other than that, everything is just fine.
But McIlroy seems to be rounding back into form. He shot a final-round 65 last week at the Houston Open to nab his third top-10 finish of the 2014 PGA season and is at least talking like someone whose days of uncertainty are in the past.
"Mind, body, equipment, it's all there. There's no excuses," McIlroy told reporters, per USA Today's Nancy Armour.. "It's just about not getting ahead of yourself and just letting all the practice and all the work that you've put in come out in your execution, and just get out of your own way."
McIlroy will be in a group with two young Americans looking to establish themselves among the world's more prominent young golfers.
Spieth has been essentially groomed for this spot for years. He was the talk of the amateur circuit before arriving at the University of Texas—which took him less than two years to outgrow before turning pro. The 20-year-old captured his first PGA Tour win in July's John Deere Classic en route to winning the Rookie of the Year award and has only continued building momentum from there.
With four top-10 finishes already this season, Spieth comes into his first Masters as a dark-horse candidate for some. It's unlikely he'll win a green jacket the first time he enters, but this should be the first of many years of contention.
Reed is the least touted of the trio. Which is kind of funny considering he's performed the best in 2014. The winner of two events already this calendar year, Reed is currently in second place in the FedEx Cup standings.
If you pick just one group to watch Thursday, this is it.
Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Justin Rose (1:48 p.m. ET)
Phil Mickelson at the Masters. There's nothing more to say here, really. Lefty has a higher Q-Rating in Augusta than almost anyone on tour—depending on how the fine residents of Georgia are feeling about Sir Eldrick on that fine day.
While Woods has always been a bit standoffish and private, Mickelson has engendered himself to crowds with his openness. You see it most at the U.S. Open, where the rules of decorum aren't quite as, umm, strict as they are at Augusta. But Mickelson will still receive slightly louder-than-usual polite applause and the occasional subdued fist pump this weekend if he's playing well.
"I'm certainly nervous, because this is a week that I care about the most," Mickelson told reporters, per CBS Sports' Kyle Porter. "This is the most special tournament, and I have to rely on kind of past performances and past successes and past memories to build that confidence."
Mickelson will be playing with Els and Rose, two guys with green jacket aspirations of their own.
Rose, the South African who finished fifth here in 2007, falls into the so-called magic age of Masters winners. Typically, the event skews right into that middle age of golfers—with guys in their mid-to-early-30s winning out most often. Rose finally got over his own major-championship hump at last year's U.S. Open as well, so the pressure might finally be off enough for him to contend.
Els has played miserably for much of 2014, but I'm admittedly a sucker for this dude. He always finds a way to move himself into the conversation. Whether it's for one round, two or he shocks the world by winning the whole thing the way he did at the 2012 Open Championship, odds are we'll be uttering Els' name sometime this weekend.
It's been a decade since he even finished in the top 10 at Augusta, so don't expect his first green jacket. But he'll be around somewhere.
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