For a network executive, it's been the type of nightmare that makes you wake up in a cold sweat and call your parents to say you love them. No Tiger Woods. No Phil Mickelson. No Sergio Garcia or Jason Dufner. Rory McIlroy is there in name only.
If the job of a major tournament is to attract casual eyeballs and goose ratings—and, don't get it twisted; that's exactly how networks view majors—the 2014 Masters has been an unmitigated failure. ESPN's opening-round ratings were down 28 percent versus 2013, or roughly 800,000 viewers. I suspect as the full tournament averages come in from CBS, which broadcasts the weekend rounds at Augusta, that we'll see another precipitous drop.
Woods is the biggest culprit—especially for those first-round numbers. Even at age 38 and six years removed from his last major, Woods is golf's answer to Floyd Mayweather. Put him in any golf tournament or Mayweather in the ring against any schlub, and droves of people will tune in. Throw either man into a major tournament or truly high-profile bout (think Canelo Alvarez), and network executives will make it rain with advertising dollars or pay-per-view buys.
Take either out of the equation and you're quickly having panel discussions about the financial wherewithal of the sport's future.
Now take Woods, Mickelson, McIlroy, et al. out of contention, you have a borderline catastrophe. Replace those guys with a leaderboard that's most well-known name is Bubba Watson and prominently features Jonas Blixt (is that the dude from Veep?) and you have CBS execs hunkering into their underground bunkers waiting for the world to end.
This isn't to disparage the product on the course. Quite the opposite, in fact. Because if there ever were a Masters to have a starless Sunday and atone for it with a thrilling finish—one that will get those coveted casual eyeballs, no matter Tiger or Phil's lack of involvement—it's this one.
Watson and Jordan Spieth share the lead at five under overall, but they're far from the only contenders. Thirteen golfers are within four strokes of first place, nine are within three and six are two or closer. When folks said this was a "wide-open" Masters when Woods announced he was withdrawing due to a back injury, they were relying on false platitudes.
But this really is as wide open a final Sunday as you can get. It's also one featuring new faces who are getting golf's biggest stage to possibly get their first moment of national praise.
This starts with Spieth, of course. The 20-year-old Texan, viewed by many as the best young American golfer, is on the precipice of proving all that hype correct. He's one of just two golfers in the field (Blixt) to shoot under par in all three rounds, flashing a calm, mature outlook that at times has made him seem more emotionally together than his co-leader.
Spieth would be the youngest Masters winner in history, breaking the record of—you guessed it—Tiger Woods. Eldrick was just past his 21st birthday when he won his green jacket in his second start at Augusta. Spieth is in his first. He would also become just the fifth golfer in history to win a major before his 21st birthday, and the first in 92 years.
"The Masters brings out emotion in guys that aren't emotional," Spieth told reporters of his mental state. "I'm already emotional and I got to keep it on the down low. You've got to stay really patient and understand what this golf course gives you."
Add nine years and you essentially have the story of Blixt, a 29-year-old Swede just finally making his first run through American major tournaments. He qualified for The Open Championship and PGA last year, finishing in a tie for 26th and fourth, respectively. Considering he has just two PGA wins and has clawed his way from the bottom of the professional golf specter to be here, it's safe to say Blixt has the mental fortitude to stay in contention Sunday.
Blixt, who was one under in Round 3, last won in July at the Greenbrier Classic.
With Rickie Fowler carding a five-under 67 on Saturday to move into a tie for fifth, there is a very good chance we could see a first-time major winner don a green jacket for the fourth straight year. Adam Scott, Watson and Charl Schwartzel all captured their first (and only) titles at Augusta. Fowler, meanwhile, has never finished better than a fifth-place tie at a major and his best Masters performance is a tie for 27th.
Ironically, it's Mickelson to whom Fowler said he owes his gratitude.
"I think the person I've learned the most from here is Phil," Fowler told Golf Week's Nick Masuda. "There's no one—it's unfortunate to see him not play well the first two days, but there's no one that I have found that knows the course better than him."
Of course, not all the new faces are exactly "new."
Fred Couples and Miguel Jimenez are a pair of fiftysomethings with history of their own on the line. Both golfers would become the oldest men in history to win a major championship.
Jimenez, who carded a tournament-best 66 on Saturday, has the best shot. He's three under overall, just two shy of the lead, and has been utterly brilliant out of the tee box. The 50-year-old Spaniard has hit a tournament-high 92.9 percent of his fairways thus far, which is either an unsustainable outlier or a sign of steadiness that will vault him even further on Sunday.
Given Jimenez's predilection toward being both unsustainable and an outlier, the odds are on the former. Something of an Internet cult hero because of his unorthodox stretching regimen and love of a good cigar on the course, Jimenez is arguably the crowd favorite. He's also someone who (unsurprisingly) doesn't subscribe to the notion a 50-year-old is automatically eliminated from contention.
"If you are 50 doesn't mean that you cannot play well," Jimenez told reporters. "I'm still moving. I'm still flexible...the main thing is I'm doing what I like to do in my life and I'm enjoying it completely."
Couples is four shots back and decidedly less of a factor. His contention at Augusta has become something of a great "aww, shucks" story that never quite pans out. He's been in the top 10 through 36 holes in each of the last five tournaments and has finished no worse than 15th in the last four.
But the reality of 2014 is that Couples does have the outside shot—as does Blixt, Jimenez, Fowler and Spieth. Hell, throw in Jim Furyk while we're at it.
History says all five guys have only a remote chance of donning the green jacket. History says it'll be Watson or Matt Kuchar or maybe even Justin Rose lurking three shots back. And, frankly, if I were a betting man, Kuchar and Watson are my picks to finish first and second, respectively.
But if this Masters tournament has taught anyone anything, it's to expect the unexpected. Tiger or not, the excuses to not tune in have run out.
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