With the world's top golfers starting their day at Round 1 of the 2014 Masters, we can thankfully end all the inane discussion and actually begin enjoying arguably the best tournament on the planet.
While golf storylines are decidedly less insufferable than some other sports—mostly because golf is only on the national purview during major season, but still—I may throw a brick at the next person who says Tiger Woods' absence opens the event for "anyone" to win. For starters, Woods hasn't won at Augusta since 2005. And he's not even won a major championship since 2008.
We'd all love Tiger to be there. But he's not. His absence reduces the list of potential champions by exactly one: Tiger Woods. It increases it by zero.
Even with Woods' absence looming, it would have been difficult to this year's event to eclipse its predecessor. The 2013 tournament saw Adam Scott shoot a final-round 69 and defeat Angel Cabrera in a playoff to capture his first green jacket. Scott heads into this week as a co-favorite with Rory McIlroy, per Oddsshark.
Cabrera, who gave Augusta National his measurements in 2009, looms again as a potential spoiler. He's been a top-10 finisher two of the last three years. With McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, et al. still in the field, it's not like Augusta will be lacking for star power in the coming days.
Those stars just won't have 14 major championships.
Nonetheless, if you want to keep track of how your favorite golfer fares on Thursday, be sure to check back for the live updating leaderboard widget embedded below. Now go read more words.
Golfers to Watch
The Favorite: Rory McIlroy
If there was ever a year, this is it. The seas have parted, the tide is low. Sir Eldrick Woods is nowhere to be found and Phil Mickelson is in the midst of a deep slump. The field is set up for McIlroy to start getting over his Masters demons.
Of course, those demons began in 2011. Dominant through his first three rounds, McIlroy held a four-stroke lead going into the final day. He left in 15th. An eight-over 80 helped vault Charl Schwartzel into his first green jacket and left McIlroy a deep Augusta scar. That round started a streak of four of his past five weekend rounds at the Masters being 76 or higher.
Each of those rounds eradicated promising starts, in which McIlroy looked destined to nab his first green jacket.
"I have no ill feelings toward 2011," McIlroy told reporters. "I thought it was very important day in my career. It was a big learning curve for me. And I don't know if I had not have had that day, would I be the person and the player that I am sitting here, because I learned so much from it."
Over the past year and a half, Augusta weekends haven't been the only place McIlroy has struggled. He hasn't won on the PGA Tour since his back-to-back titles at the Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship in September 2012. The period has seen him drop from first to ninth in the world golf rankings, have his mental wherewithal questioned and allowed multiple young players to step in the spotlight he once held alone.
Recent history says we should at least expect McIlroy in the conversation going into the weekend. He's not shot an over-par round in the first 36 holes since 2010, with five of his last six putting him in red numbers.
Oddsshark currently lists McIlroy as a 9-1 co-favorite along with defending champion Adam Scott. Considering only three men (Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo) have repeated at Augusta, I'd say it's fair to give McIlroy a little bump ahead of the Aussie. Either way, McIlroy should breathe pretty easy until Saturday.
The Wild Card: Sergio Garcia
Stop laughing! I'm being serious! Get off the ground. Come on. Act like an adult for once. Sergio Garcia is a very good golfer. Yeah, sure, we have a decade-and-a-half's worth of him choking when the spotlight gets even the slightest bit bright. And maybe he's not the soundest mentally in a sport that absolutely requires that trait.
There's plenty of empirical evidence suggesting Garcia will contend deep into the weekend. First and foremost being he is once again very good at golf. Garcia, left almost entirely on the back burner for a two-year period in 2009 and 2010, has very quietly bounced back to become one of the world's best. He comes into Augusta ranked sixth in the world again, three spots ahead of the dude considered the favorite.
While he's only won once on the PGA Tour since 2008, Garcia has been consistently stellar this season. In five PGA stroke-play events, he's finished no worse than a tie for 16th. Couple that with a win in January at Qatar on the European Tour and a third-place finish at last week's Houston Open, momentum is on Garcia's side.
No player has a better scoring average, and it's hard to find all that many weaknesses in his game. Garcia is strong (though a little inaccurate) off the tee, has hit consistently stellar irons and has only rarely picked up his short stick in frustration. Driving accuracy is critical at any major, but Augusta is a course that allows you a few mistakes. There are no ridiculous sand dunes or U.S. Open-level roughs. Garcia can handle a few misses here and there.
At least from a theoretical standpoint. Garcia's problem has rarely been physical. But at age 34 (yes, only 34), he should be mentally mature enough to handle a few mistakes. If he is, Garcia is playing well enough to win the whole thing.
(Please do not throw these paragraphs back in my face when Garcia shoots 80 on Thursday.)
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