AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Have you heard that the Masters is “wide open” this year? If you’ve tuned in for pre-event coverage on your prized flat screen, your trusted magazine or your pricey laptop, you’ve likely plowed into considerable analysis around the idea that this Masters could be won by almost anyone. Expect the unexpected! Anything is possible!
Here’s the reality: even without Tiger Woods, this Masters still holds a few prime contenders (and let’s not forget, Woods hasn’t won here since ’05). You can make a solid case for Adam Scott or Jason Day or one of the Johnsons -- Dustin and Zach. Angel Cabrera seems to hang in here every year. Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker are due. So are the Brits, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald. There is unquestionably a cluster of clear favorites this week.
But a formidable group can be further whittled down to two: Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson.
McIlroy doesn’t necessarily view himself (or anyone) as the favorite. He sees a long list of potential champions. He sees “wide open.”
“I would say 70,” said McIlroy, when asked how many players have a legitimate shot at a jacket. “You've got a lot of guys that can win, a lot of guys that have won PGA Tour events.”
Mickelson, says the field of contenders narrows as the golf course becomes more difficult.
“If the course plays firm and fast conditions, I think you're looking at less than a dozen,” he said when asked how many can win. “But if it doesn't, I think you're looking at almost half the field.”
While both acknowledge a variety of possibilities, look a little closer and you’ll find that the road to a green jacket runs straight through those two names.
Mickelson is a three-time winner and remains motivated for more. “I do know that Arnold and Tiger have four jackets and I have three,” he quipped. Mickelson’s ’14 season has been a struggle -- he currently has two more WDs than top 10 finishes, including a surprising walk-off two weeks ago in San Antonio after a pulled back muscle. He said that he’d like to enter this week with some better early-season results, but health is the main thing.
“I'm nervous about this week because I always like coming into this week with a win. I like coming into this week being in contention a few times and having that confidence and experience to build on,” Mickelson said. “But I have to give myself a little bit of slack, because I have not been 100 percent. Last week I was 100 percent.”
Mickelson credited medicine ball work for strengthening his back and said that he’s confident he can take full swings pain-free. Remember, in two of his three Masters-winning seasons, he didn’t win an event before landing in Augusta. And Augusta is his playground. He has 14 top 10s in his career here. Fourteen. He has eight top 3s. Eight. Add it up, and he’s a favorite this week.
“I know how to win it, and it's a confidence and momentum-builder when you can look back on that,” he said. “It's a huge thing to have already done it.”
Mickelson is clearly loose, and he broke up the room several times during his press conference as he gabbed about “wagering” on his Tuesday practice round alongside Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Jason Dufner, and admitted to losing a small bet with a greenside fan who challenged him execute a tricky up-and-down.
“I had to get a five from a caddie,” Mickelson said with a laugh.
And then there’s McIlroy. He had one great chance to grab a jacket, in 2011, when his four-shot final-round lead turned into a Freddy Krueger movie and a 15th-place finish. “That's probably the only time I've cried over golf… because you never know if you're going to get that opportunity again,” he said. So, let’s allow McIlroy to address that first. Is he over it?
“I have no ill feelings towards 2011. I thought it was a very -- it was a very important day in my career,” he said. “And I don't know if I had not had that day, would I be the person and the player that I am sitting here, because I learned so much from it. I learned exactly not what to do under pressure, and I definitely learned from that day how to handle my emotions better on the course.”
After that Masters meltdown his career went straight to the cosmos as he won two majors by a combined 16 shots and eventually snapped up the No. 1 ranking. Then came last year’s market correction as he adjusted to new clubs, a new endorsement deal and elevated expectations. This season, McIlroy has been back in the mix but has yet to win, his closet brush coming at the Honda Classic, where he squandered at two-shot lead and went down in sudden death. But it looks like he’s back, doesn’t it? He’s … close. He says he’s ready to add a new chapter to his Masters legacy.
“I certainly feel comfortable on the golf course here. I'm disappointed that my best finish was only 15th,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I've played better than that and haven't quite got the results. Hopefully I can change that this week.”
If McIlroy wins he would make an emphatic case that he’s the sheriff of golf’s youth movement with three majors at age 24. On Thursday, he’ll tee off with two other prominent members of the next generation, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed. McIlroy, sounding very much like a favorite himself, said everything is lined up for him.
“Mind, body, equipment, it's all there. It's all there. There's no excuses if I don't play well this week,” he said. “So it's just a matter of managing my expectations, not getting ahead of myself, not thinking about Sunday when it's Friday afternoon. Just really keeping myself in the present and in the moment and trying to take it one shot at a time and hopefully those shots add up to about 270 and I walk away with a green jacket.”