AUGUSTA, Ga. — There was a time when the question before a major was simple, even if the answer wasn’t: Do you take Tiger Woods, or the field?
Heading into the 2012 Masters at Augusta National, the proposition has been slightly modified: Do you take the three-headed monster that is Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Woods—a.k.a. Tiger Mickelroy—or the field?
“I think it’s going to be the most wide-open Masters ever,” said putting coach Dave Stockton, who worked with McIlroy at the Bear’s Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., last Saturday. “Luke Donald is playing well, and so is Justin Rose. Hunter Mahan has won twice.”
Yes, but would he take Rory/Phil/Tiger, or the field?
“I’d take Rory, Phil and Tiger,” said Stockton, who also coaches Mickelson.
Martin Kaymer, the German who has never made the cut in four Masters starts, authored Monday’s biggest highlight. Playing in a group that included Tom Watson and U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Randal Lewis, Kaymer, hitting last, skipped his ball across the pond on the par-3 16th hole, and watched as his ball trickled down into the hole, setting off a huge roar.
Inevitably, though, the conversation turned back to Woods, McIlroy and Mickelson. Such is the mastery they have shown at Augusta, even if McIlroy’s run of excellence lasted only 63 holes last year. Woods played practice rounds with Mark O’Meara on both Sunday and Monday; Mickelson checked in Monday but didn't play; and McIlroy is not expected to arrive until Tuesday.
“I think certainly Tiger has got to be in the mix,” said Adam Scott, who tied for second at last year’s Masters. “He’s playing well, and he’s won four times here. He knows what he’s doing. But you can say that about Phil, as well. There’s too many guys. But someone can come up and surprise, and hopefully that’s me.”
The course is extremely lush, and after torrential rain last weekend, players say they’re getting little roll on their drives. The forecast calls for plenty of moisture the rest of the week: a chance of isolated thunderstorms Tuesday afternoon, showers and thunderstorms Wednesday, a 40 percent chance of precipitation Thursday, and a 60 percent chance Friday.
So much rain could accentuate the advantage of the long-hitters because their high, soaring tee shots rely less on a big first bounce down the fairway--the kind of bounce that all but disappears on a soggy course.
McIlroy, who won the Honda Classic a month ago, has unfinished business at Augusta after his back-nine collapse last year. Woods, coming off a victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks ago, has won the Masters four times and hasn’t finished worse than T6 since 2004. Mickelson, who won at Pebble Beach with a final-round 64 earlier this year, has won three Masters.
“Those three have the best chance to win,” said Kevin Na, who has missed the cut here the last two years, his only two starts. “You’ve got to hit it high and long around here, and they do. Does that mean they are the only ones who can win? No. I’m at a disadvantage, I’ll be honest, but you’ve also got to chip and putt very well out here. Luke Donald did well here. Zach Johnson has won.”
Indeed, one wonders whether Rory’s Titleist, Phil’s Callaway, and Tiger’s Nike will follow the script. Few were singing the praises of winner Charl Schwartzel -- or even co-runners-up Jason Day and Scott -- leading up to last year’s Masters.
“Golf odds are weird,” said Al Geiberger, who became the first player to break 60 on the PGA Tour in 1977, and is here this week as an honorary invitee. “Golfers aren’t very predictable. And there’s definitely more depth in this era.”
Rose has been under par in half of his 24 rounds at Augusta, and finished fifth in 2007. Mahan also has been under par in half of his rounds here, and was eighth in 2010. Masters rookie Kyle Stanley impressed during a practice round with Mickelson, Keegan Bradley and Brendan Steele early last week.
Donald, who won in Tampa last month, is coming off a T4 at the Masters last year, and that wasn’t even his best finish. He finished third in 2005. Like Donald, Steve Stricker and Lee Westwood are trying to win their first major, and they’ve shown they can handle the big course. Westwood finished second in 2010, and super-putter Stricker was sixth in ’09.
And they’re hardly the only ones who could spoil the Rory/Phil/Tiger coronation. Consider Robert Garrigus, who will make his first Masters start Thursday. He played the course three times last week to try to dissipate the awe-factor. He added up his strokes after his very first look at the course: 70. He’s long, he’s a strong iron player, and he’s flying completely under the radar.
“I’m taking the field,” Garrigus said. “I’m in the field, and I feel like I’m going to win the golf tournament. I just have to stay calm and hit my shots.”
A first-timer hasn’t won the Masters since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, but Day was making his maiden voyage when he birdied the last two holes to finish T2 last year. He says the focus on Rory/Phil/Tiger is good for the game—and him.
“Not many people are paying attention to me,” Day said, “which is nice.”