As 2015 Masters dawns, star power suggests thrilling weekend

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The dessert plates have been cleared from the Champions Dinner, and the wise words beneath the giant oak all have been spoken. The Par 3 Contest is in the books. By late Wednesday afternoon, the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club was a tranquil, empty place, shut down to this week’s competitors for final course preparations.

Yes, finally, we are ready for the 79th Masters to commence. Picking a favorite? Now that’s pretty tricky business – sort of like picking a flavor at Baskin-Robbins, or a favorite Charlie’s Angel.

The odds say your Masters favorite is Rory McIlroy, the man who has hoisted hardware at each of the last two major championships, winning his first Open at England’s Royal Liverpool and his second PGA Championship at Kentucky’s Valhalla Golf Club. But to this point, Augusta National seems to have cast this little spell over him. He went to the back nine with a lead in 2011 and finished 15th. Five times he’s been here, and only once has he finished inside the top 10. And he’s yet to find the right plan to dominate on the par 5s, a big key here for a player with his power. The career slam? It might wait.

So … who’s your favorite, Mr. McIlroy?

McIlroy stammered for a second, then said, “I’d say Bubba (Watson). I mean, he’s won here two of the last three years. Perfect game for this course. Been playing really well. Seems confident every time he tees it up. So if you’re looking at someone that will do well this week, I think Bubba is the main guy – not trying to put any pressure on him or anything.”

Yet Watson hasn’t played a whole lot of competitive golf lately. He pulled out of the Arnold Palmer Invitational three weeks ago after the death of his close friend, former Georgia teammate David Miller, which means he’s had one start since the PGA Tour left the West Coast in February.

Bubba loves this place, but three green jackets in four years? Jos. A. Bank doesn’t even run specials that good. It’s been accomplished just once. Guy’s name? Jack Nicklaus.

Jordan Spieth, though only 21 and competing in just his second Masters, is an interesting player to watch. He’s gritty and he’s in terrific form, having won the Valspar in Tampa last month and having posted a pair of runner-up finishes in his native Texas. Ben Crenshaw, the last Texan to win at Augusta (1995), said that when he first looked into Spieth’s eyes, it was as if he were looking at gunslinger Wyatt Earp.

“He has an innate ability to score,” Crenshaw said. “He does things – he hits the ball definitely far enough. I think one of the really wonderful things that I really do like about him, he’s got competitive fire. You can see it. I think he carries that off in a great fashion.”

Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Jimmy Walker (twice) all have won heading into Augusta and all are riding high on confidence. Adam Scott has a new relationship and renewed boldness with Augusta since winning in 2013, and he has the familiar long putter back in his bag. Phil Mickelson started making birdies last week in Houston and knows the National as few others do. Oh, and that Tiger Woods fellow is even back on the property after a two-month layoff, and after missing the Masters a year ago following 19 years of starts.

Woods looked fine in early-week practice, and seems to have solved some of his chipping woes through good old-fashioned hard work, working sunup to sundown some days at home in Florida. But again, we’re talking about him shining in hit-and-giggle-with-Mo practice sessions. The last time Woods signed for an 18-hole score on the PGA Tour, it was an 82 in Phoenix.

We’ll certainly know more on Woods on Thursday shortly after 1:48 p.m.

“The golf world is pretty interesting at the moment,” said Geoff Ogilvy, who is back in the field at Augusta after a two-year absence. “I mean, there’s a lot of guys who would rightly be in the real conversation: Rory, Dustin, Jordan, Adam, Jason, Phil really started playing better last week. Bubba is always one of the clear favorites here.”

Referencing Woods, a winner of four green jackets, Ogilvy said, “We’ve gone so long – my whole career or life there’s been one out-and-out-and-beyond favorite in this tournament every year. Now there’s like six or seven guys. You kind of throw a blanket over them.”

That’s the problem. They don’t want a blanket; they all want a green jacket, and on Sunday, only one will be handed out. Most players are pretty humble in talking about the quest, but some want to win so badly they simply cannot help themselves. Wednesday marked Day’s seventh consecutive day practicing at Augusta. If there’s a line to being prepared, he passed it days ago.

“They are the two main goals I’ve always had, and I’ve always been honest about it: winning this tournament and getting to No. 1 in the world,” Day said. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

When asked if golf is in a better position to have one dominant player, as Woods was for a decade and a half, or several at the top, Ogilvy believes a scenario of parity is a far more attractive prospect.

“And it’s not one of those cases where we don’t have that outstanding player,” Ogilvy said. “We’ve just got seven or eight outstanding players. They’re all incredible. Golf is in an amazingly good spot.

“And if Tiger plays like he can, he’s going to be one of the favorites. Because clearly he has massive advantages around here. He knows it so well and he’s won it what, four times? That adds intrigue to the story, too. This has to be one of the best buildups to any tournament, ever.”

Yes, the buildup has been sensational. Let’s hope the show follows suit.

Raise the curtain, please.

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