It's almost here. Four days of glorious golf in a setting that is both beautiful and treacherous. Having never been to Augusta National in person (I did try for the ticket lottery, but no luck), I can only go by what I've watched, read or listened to. But I can tell you that even with being on the outside looking in, I can still feel the excitement, the anxiety, and the pure joy of experiencing all that is the Masters.
I'm not sure why, but this year I sense there is almost a battle-like atmosphere...while some may try to make cases for a dominating player, it seems to me that there are all kinds of possibilities when it comes to who will be wearing a new green jacket come late Sunday afternoon.
You can look at the players from all kinds of perspectives...the young guns, the veterans (I guess Tiger is a veteran now!), the Euros, the Aussies, the "horses for courses", the hot blades, the Major winners (or the best player without a Major), the guys who already have Green Jackets, and the list goes on.
As I do each year I go through the invite list and see how each player qualified. There are 19 categories that will get you a spot in the field, along with a rare special invitation. [Sidebar: there were discussions in the golf world this past week about whether Ernie Els should have received an invitation to the Masters if he didn't win at the Shell Houston Open last week (he didn't get one). Most responses I read said that he should earn his way in, but the committee does have discretion to invite players. This year, Ryo Ishikawa received one of those invites. For the record, I thought Els would have been a great invite!]
There are 15 first time Masters participants in this year's field of 96 players (Dustin Johnson WD'ed yesterday with a tweaked back). Of those, 5 are amateurs. The remaining 10 players came in through a few different categories. Harrison Frazar, Kyle Stanley, Scott Stallings, and Brendan Steele are coming in because they had a PGA Tour win since the last Masters (Stanley also qualified with his World Ranking (OWGR)). Wins also brought in Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley and they qualified in at least 4 other categories as well. Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Sang-moon Bae are at Augusta due to their OWGR ranking, and Keven Chappell and Robert Garrigus are playing this week because of their top 8 finish at last year's US Open.
After watching all of the success of Bradley and Simpson last year, it's hard to believe this is their first trip to the Masters. I watched an interview with Bradley where he mentioned that he's been able to practice with and pick the brain of Phil Mickelson in his preparation for the Masters, so I think he's probably got a little leg up on the rest of the "newbies".
Eighteen former Masters champions are in the field this week, including last year's champion, Charl Schwarzel. Green jacket owners qualify for life, and 10 of those players are entered based on only their past champion status. Those include Larry Mize, Mark O'Meara, Ben Crenshaw, Jose Maria Olazabal, Craig Stadler, Tom Watson, Mike Weir, Bernard Langer, Ian Woosnam, and Sandy Lyle. Other winners (besides reigning champ Schwarzel), who also qualified this year in other categories include Angel Cabrera, Fred Couples, Trevor Immelman, Zach Johnson, Vijay Singh, and a couple guys you might know, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Now the question is, who will be the next golfer to don the green jacket come Easter Sunday? Besides Woods and Mickelson, there are a couple other guys who have been battling it out for the top spot on the OWGR that looked primed to add a Major to their win list. Rory McIlory is getting the best (or I guess maybe worst if you're trying to make money!) odds on several lists. His win at the US Open last year erased any doubt that he could be a closer in the majors. Luke Donald, who regained his #1 spot on the OWGR after losing it briefly to McIlory, is arguably "the best player without a Major", although some speculate that his lack of length could hurt him (hmmm, Zach Johnson anyone?). Lee Westwood, currently #3 in the world is also looking for his first Major, another with Shell Houston Open winner and now #4 player in the world Hunter Mahan.
And then of course there's Steve Stricker. My heart remains strong in the hope that Stricker can capture a Major, and even though most say he might be a better fit for a PGA win, I'm dreaming of a Masters win for him this week. Stricker is currently #5 on the OWGR so that makes it 4 out of the 5 players in the world this week are not major winners. Will that change come Sunday? I'd say the odds are pretty good.
The Aussie duo of Adam Scott and Jason Day are going to do their best to bring a Green Jacket to their home country. I shouldn't count out Geoff Ogilvy since he did make a nice run here last year. Day has been a little off the radar this year so far, but you can't forget is T2 finish last year that makes him a favorite again in 2012.
A few more of my favorites this week include Matt Kuchar (who I do think could surprise this week!), Bill Haas (another quiet favorite), Alvaro Quiros (he's just so dang long!), and Bubba Watson (praying for his putter this week!).
The pairing sheet is up on http://www.masters.com/ (and if you haven't bookmarked this page, go do it now!). Loving the Stricker, Padraig Harrington, Stewart Cink grouping along with the last 2 groups of the day Cabrera, McIlory, and Bubba Watson, and Mickelson, Mahan and Peter Hanson.
There will be coverage on ESPN and online for the Par-3 contest today (Wednesday), and then it all begins on Thursday. Rain is in the forecast for the first 2 days, so we'll see if that impacts play or the speed of the greens.
The thing about Augusta is you're lulled in by the beauty, the experience of it all, and then you find out that punishment awaits on every hole if you're not careful and respectful. But on occasion, if you've earned its respect, the course may just give you a break or two. My brain floods with visions of Masters past, and I love seeing the highlight reels. I wonder what will be added from this year.
I've already bought my chips and soda and I plan on moving my couch right in front of the TV for Masters Sunday. I'll be wearing my Masters hat that some friends got me last year, and will do a special blessing for Steve Stricker with water from Rae's Creek. And, for my Mom, Go Phil!
For me, golf season has officially begun!! I hope your heart is as happy as mine.