Few players have risen to No. 2 in the world with less fanfare than Steve Stricker.
When he won so convincingly at Riviera in February, it was his fourth PGA Tour victory in his last 15 starts, the highest rate of winning this side of Tiger Woods. It was enough for Stricker to be considered among the best players who haven’t won a major, and with his pure putting stroke, he figures to be a contender at the Masters.
Not that anyone will notice in the days leading up to the year’s first major.
“I’m sure we’ll get a ton of Tiger questions, and rightly so,” Stricker said. “It’s been a huge story.”
The biggest story in golf – at least inside the ropes – in the month leading to Augusta National has been Ernie Els. He ended two years without a victory by winning his second World Golf Championship title, then made it two in a row with a victory at Bay Hill. That made Els the first player in 2010 with multiple PGA Tour victories, and a big favorite at the Masters.
Now, he’s expecting a quiet week.
“People are not going to be talking about who’s in form until probably Thursday morning when we start the event,” Els said. “It’s going to be all about Tiger and him coming back and everything. So I think we will all be sideshows until Thursday morning. And I think we’re fine with that. Everybody is fine with that.”
Stricker and Els are among the half-dozen players who can be considered favorites at the Masters. Any other year, they would be getting more attention than usual on the road to Augusta.
This year has been a little different.
Rarely has a tournament gone by without top players – just about any player, for that matter – getting asked about Woods.
“For a guy not being around, he sure has drawn a lot of attention,” Stricker said.
Few other players have stood out. Seven of the top 15 players in the world ranking have won this year, with Els the only multiple winner on the sport’s toughest circuit. Geoff Ogilvy opened his season with another victory at Kapalua. Ian Poulter captured his first victory in America. Camilo Villegas threatened in two tournaments before winning the Honda Classic. Jim Furyk won for the first time in 2 1/2 years.
All of them could be expected to do well at the Masters.
Being overshadowed by Woods might work to their advantage. They already feel pressure to perform without having to be constantly asked about the state of their game and whether this could be the year they break through at Augusta.
Mike Weir knows what that’s like from experience.
He had won the Bob Hope Classic and Riviera early in the 2003 season, along with a tie for third at Pebble Beach. The Canadian was as hot as anyone headed to the Florida swing in March, the month when the focus turns to the Masters. Indeed, media activity was busier than usual that year, but not because of Weir or how he played.
That was the year of Martha Burk’s campaign to have Augusta National change its all-male membership. While the issue wasn’t nearly as salacious or shocking as Woods’ infidelity, it dominated the conversation. Weir quietly went to the Masters, and emerged with a green jacket.
“Going in 2003, I don’t think anybody was playing any better,” Weir recalled. “I was hardly asked a question before the tournament started. So there’s some truth to that. When there’s a singular focus like this year, you’re going in under the radar.”
Once the questions get beyond Woods’ stunning fall, his public apology and his decision to return to the Masters, they shift toward how Woods will fare at the Masters after not competing in five months.
Els, Stricker, Furyk, Poulter, Ogilvy, Villegas and Martin Kaymer of Germany already have shown what they can do.
Now it’s a question of anyone noticing before the Masters gets under way.
“It’s a good thing, especially for me,” Stricker said. “I don’t care to be looked at as a favorite or a top player. I would rather do my own stuff, my own business, and slide under the radar.”
That might not last once the tournament begins on Thursday, heads into the weekend and onto the back nine on Sunday. The course has not gone through any significant changes, and Masters officials showed last year they are interested in bringing some noise back by setting up the course for birdies and eagles.
There is no shortage of players capable of taking advantage, even if all eyes are on one guy.
“I think it could be one hell of a year,” Els said before winning at Bay Hill. “There’s a really good group of players playing well, and I think that bodes very well for the first major and the rest of the year. It’s not going to be a walkover for anybody.”