AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Phil Mickelson was enjoying lunch amid a large gathering on the veranda at Augusta National on Tuesday when the weather turned a little cooler than expected. Not to worry. The three-time Masters champion simply had his green jacket brought up, smiling sheepishly and eliciting laughter as he slipped it on over his shoulders.
Mickelson, who at 43 has looked a bit fragile this season, is coming off an encouraging T12 at the Shell Houston Open last weekend. He would join Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods with a fourth Masters win this weekend, busting out of a logjam of five players with three.
In other words, there’s still plenty to see at the 2014 Masters even in the absence of Tiger Woods, who is recovering from back surgery.
Here are 10 other intriguing storylines to keep an eye on:
1. The Rookies: There are 24 first-timers in the field, breaking the record for number of Masters rookies. The big difference this year: Between newbies like Patrick Reed, Jordan Spieth and Jimmy Walker, who have six victories between them in the last 12 months, these guys are brash enough to contend on the weekend and maybe even to win, becoming the first rookie to slip on the jacket since Fuzzy Zoeller in ’79.
The early favorite to lead the group of 24: WGC-Cadillac champion Reed, who went to Augusta State and played the course three times as an amateur. It was Reed who pronounced himself a top-five player after winning at Doral. As if to say, “Prove it,” the powers that be at Augusta National have put him in a threesome with Rory McIlroy and Spieth for the first two rounds. They’re off at 10:52 a.m. Thursday.
2. Rory McIlroy: Tournament favorite McIlroy, who is coming off a final-round 65 and a T7 in Houston, and who (other than the Australian Open) hasn’t won anything of note in the last 18 months, looked primed to atone for his 2011 Masters meltdown. McIlroy opened that Masters with a 65, closed with an 80, and has had unfinished business here ever since.
3. Brandt Snedeker: Unfinished business? Brandt Snedeker is still trying to erase the memory of 2007, when he limped in with a 77 to tie for third and broke down. Snedeker tied for eighth in his last start at Bay Hill.
4. Come On, Aussies: Ever since Adam Scott broke through last year to become the first Aussie to win the Masters, Australians can’t stop winning. The latest to burst onto the stage is Matt Jones, who chipped in to beat Matt Kuchar in a sudden-death playoff at the Shell Houston Open, claiming the last spot in this week’s Masters field. Jones’s big breakthrough came a week after Steven Bowditch won for the first time, and not long after Jason Day won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
“We’re a close-knit group of guys out there from Australia,” Scott said Tuesday. “It’s motivation for all of us [to see one another winning].”
5. Justin Rose: The U.S. Open champ has held or shared the first-round Masters lead three times, and believes he may have found the secret to getting ready for the majors. As he did before the U.S. Open at Merion, Rose did his initial prep work at Augusta a few weeks early, thereby missing the bad weather early in the week. (Rose got here Tuesday, missing Monday’s violent thunderstorms, which closed the course here to players and patrons and led to a brief lockdown in the press pavilion.)
“In the past I’ve always tried to get ready for Thursday,” Rose said, “and now I try to get ready for Saturday and Sunday. I try to assume my game will put me in contention, and I try to get ready for that.”
6. Freddie: At least one old guy usually makes an unlikely charge on the weekend, whether it’s 58-year-old Jack Nicklaus in 1998 (he ran out of miracles and tied for sixth) or Bernhard Langer last year. (Langer faded with a final-round 76 but was on the leaderboard early Sunday.) You’ve got to believe Fred Couples will be up there in or near the lead on the weekend. The 1992 champion here, Couples has tied for second, won, and finished fifth in three starts on the Champions Tour in 2014.
7. D.J.: Dustin Johnson, who is supposedly well armed to win this thing some day, is coming off an opening-round 80 and a WD at the Shell Houston Open. Which D.J. will show up at Augusta National?
8. Keegan Bradley: There’s something different about Keegan Bradley this year. The excitable Bradley began working with instructor Chuck Cook last fall and has seen encouraging results: a second-place finish at Bay Hill, and an opening-round 66 in Houston last week.
9. Zach Johnson: Between bouts of inspired play by Zach Johnson (won the Hyundai TOC), Scott (the first half, ahem, of the Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill), Bubba Watson (a pair of 64s on the weekend to win the Northern Trust Open) and even Charl Schwartzel (T9 at Doral), there are signs that someone will win his second green jacket this weekend.
10. The Desert Fox: Scrambling savant Victor Dubuisson of France plays the game like Seve Ballesteros used to. Will he win like Seve, too?
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