For much of the country, the arrival of the Masters marks the beginning of spring — uh, spring is still coming, right? — the first men’s major golf championship in eight months, and a sign that the PGA Tour schedule is nearing full swing.
This season, though, because of the tour’s new wraparound schedule that began in October, there have been 20 tournaments played, with fresh stars emerging as golf’s biggest, best, and brightest converge this week on Augusta National Golf Club for the 78th playing of the Masters.
Well, almost all of them will be there. Ranked No. 1 in the world and already a four-time winner at Augusta, Tiger Woods instead will be far away, recovering from surgery six days ago on a pinched nerve in his back. His absence — TV ratings might dip, secondary ticket sales already have, but the Masters will indeed still be played — has taken away the pretournament betting favorite. Throw in a few additional injuries to some of the highest-ranked players and spotty early-season form by a handful of others, and a wide-open Masters is beginning to take shape, before the gates even open on Monday.
Players who are accustomed to playing in the majors want their games to peak four times each year: in April at the Masters, June in the US Open, July at the British Open, and August for the PGA Championship. Too many of those players, it seems, appear to be limping to Augusta National, either literally or figuratively.
If healthy, Jason Day is expected to seriously contend for his first major title. He’s come close at the Masters: a tie for third (2013) and a tie for second (2011) the last two times he finished 72 holes. Day withdrew in the middle of the second round two years ago with an ankle injury.
He’s been dealing with a thumb injury this year and hasn’t played since winning the Match Play Championship on Feb. 23. Day was expected to arrive at Augusta National extra early — many are getting practice rounds in this weekend, since the weather forecast for the early part of tournament week isn’t good — and if he’s not experiencing any lingering pain or discomfort, is certainly one who has created expectations of playing well there, considering his recent history.
Phil Mickelson is a three-time Masters winner, most recently in 2010. But his prospects of winning a fourth green jacket appeared to take a hit a week ago, when he pulled an oblique muscle and had to withdraw from the Valero Texas Open. Mickelson likes to play a tournament the week before a major, and after a few days of rest and a quick scouting trip to Augusta National, decided he was good enough to give this week’s Shell Houston Open a go. Good move, it looks like. With one round remaining, Mickelson is tied for eighth after rounds of 68-70-72.
Day and Mickelson aren’t the only A-flighters who might be physically hurting. Henrik Stenson, winner of last year’s Deutsche Bank Championship who is ranked No. 3 in the world, has been battling through a lingering wrist injury, dating to last year, that has limited him to five tournaments this season. A tie for fifth in his most recent start, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, is his best finish.
The players ranked Nos. 6 and 7 in the world appear healthy, but Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy have combined for just one top-five finish in 2014 on the PGA Tour: McIlroy’s runner-up playoff loss at the Honda Classic.
Without Woods, McIlroy is considered the man to beat, along with defending champion Adam Scott, who has four finishes of 12th or better in his five 2014 tour starts.
All of this isn’t to say that the Masters will be lacking star power. It just might be players the general golfing public aren’t closely familiar with. Consider the six winners of PGA Tour events since Day’s triumph at the Match Play: Russell Henley, Chesson Hadley, Patrick Reed, John Senden, Matt Every, and Steven Bowditch. Not exactly household names. Aside from Reed, who has three wins in his last 15 starts, none of them are ranked among the world’s top 40.
There’s no 14-year-old in the field this year, but we will see a father and son together in the field for the first time in Craig and Kevin Stadler.
History will be made, even though the tournament will be missing two figures we’ve grown accustomed to seeing through the years. One is Woods, who has appeared in every Masters since 1994. The other is the Eisenhower Tree, a 65-foot loblolly pine that was more than 100 years old and guarded the left side of the fairway on No. 17. It was removed in February following a crippling ice storm.
There will be a certain emptiness at Augusta National this week, but good stories will develop. They always do at the Masters.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.