Top-heavy field could make 80th masters special

Yesterday 10:01 p. m. 1 The 1975 Masters Tournament, with Jack Nicklaus out-dueling Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf, generally is considered to be the greatest Masters ever played and one of the most riveting major championships of the modern era. The 1986 Masters, with Nicklaus winning his sixth green jacket at 46, is the sentimental favorite of many. Then there was Tiger Woods’ seminal triumph in ’97, the biggest game-changer since Arnold Palmer brought golf to the masses.


They were memorable dramas played out at the Augusta National Golf Club, which is to golf what La Scala is to opera and the Louvre to art. And the 80th Masters this week could top them all. Seldom have the top 10 or 12 players in the world converged on Augusta, Ga., in peak or near-peak form, which is the case this year. Australian Jason Day, ranked No. 1, broke through for his first major title in August when he won the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. He has 10 top-10 finishes in his last 15 starts and won back-to-back tournaments in the Masters lead-up. “Is this the modern Ben Hogan?” three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo asked.

“If you want to score things 1 to 10 and 10 is perfect — and there’s no such thing as perfect in golf — then you’ve got to be giving him high 9s in every department in the game.” Jordan Spieth, the defending Masters champion and ranked No. 2 in the world, won the Tournament of Champions by eight shots in January and, other than one missed cut, has finished no worse than 21st this year. He is trying to become just the fourth golfer to win the Masters in back-to-back years. “The idea that he could be the fourth, and to have done it at 22 years of age, is mind-boggling,” said Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee. World No. 3 Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland is flying a bit beneath the radar even though a Masters victory would make him just the sixth golfer to achieve the modern Grand Slam. “For some reason it’s not getting a lot of discussion, and that is a good thing for Rory’s chances,” said Jim Nantz of CBS Sports.

“I think it really helps him that this is not center focus at the moment. In recent weeks Rory has been very close to getting his game back in peak form.” Bubba Watson, No. 4, won the Masters in 2012 and 2014 and is a winner on tour this year. Augusta National is tailor-made for the left-hander’s power fade and his creative shot-making. Another former Masters champion, sixth-ranked Adam Scott, won in back-to-back weeks earlier this year. Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed, who round out the top 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking, have combined for 14 top-10 finishes since mid-January.

Then there’s 45-year-old Phil Mickelson, ranked 20th in the world but re-energized and playing well. Lefty gets pumped the moment he drives down Magnolia Lane and should he win, he would join Nicklaus (six), Palmer (four) and Woods (four) as the only men with four or more Masters titles. Woods hasn’t played in a tournament since undergoing a third back procedure late last year and announced on his website Friday that he is not far enough along in his recovery to compete in the Masters. Even so, this Masters could be one for the ages.

Imagine sitting in front of your big-screen HD TV next Sunday afternoon and watching Day, Spieth, McIlroy, Watson and Mickelson going toe-to-toe and shot-for-shot on the back nine at Augusta National. Of course, Charl Schwartzel could win by five shots. But let’s not spoil the mood. Send email to gdamato@journalsentinel. com

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