Anything seems possible as Masters week kicks off with Monday practice rounds

Anything seems possible as Masters week kicks off with Monday practice rounds

Ian Poulter (right) had fun on the 16th hole with fellow Europeans Graeme McDowell and Justin Rose.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Masters Monday is a lot like the first day of school. You won’t catch any yellow buses motoring down Magnolia Lane, but for the players it’s a chance to ease into the week and catch up with friends before the real work begins. Guys schmooze on the practice green and chitchat in the locker room. The old guard—legends like Arnie, Gary, and Fuzzy—mosey about the clubhouse, while wide-eyed freshmen like U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein, 19-year-old Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, and the 18 other Masters rookies, do their best to remain cool. Or at least look cool. And above it all, the grounds hum with speculation and anticipation, because for the next three days at least, anything is possible.

Like, say, a fourth green jacket for Phil Mickelson. For the first time since 1996, Tiger Woods is not the bookmakers’ favorite to win the Masters. That honor goes to Mickelson, the defending champion, who arrived at Augusta National this morning in blue jeans and good spirits after a sensational weekend at the Shell Houston Open. Mickelson, now the World No. 3 after his three-shot victory, played Houston with hopes of regaining the confidence and deft shotmaking that have become his trademarks. He found bushels of both, torching Redstone Golf Club with weekend rounds of 63-65.

“I’m not going to be able to savor it or celebrate right now,” Mickelson said Sunday evening. “I’m going to save that for about eight days from now. Tomorrow, I’ve got some work to do.”

Actually, that work started in earnest early last week when Lefty passed on his practice rounds at Redstone to get some reps at the National. Following Bay Hill, he and Rickie Fowler hopped a plane to Augusta, where they teed it up with some of their peers—Hunter Mahan, Steve Marino and Charley Hoffman among them.

“Phil is obviously playing well,” Fowler said today. “Maybe because he beat up on me Tuesday last week.”

On Monday of this week, the first day of official practice rounds, plenty more players were out and about, rolling putts, scribbling autographs, and delighting fans as they skipped balls across the pond at 16; according to one report, South Korean Kyung-Tae Kim hit a low scorcher that nicked a turtle. Graeme McDowell sized up the course with a couple of other European stalwarts, Justin Rose and Ian Poulter. The Northern Irishman has been struggling of late, but he tweeted Sunday that his coach, Pete Cowan, has “imparted the flushes on me.”

Tiger Woods has been plugging away on his game, too. He arrived in Augusta on Saturday with far less media hoopla than he encountered when he made the 2010 Masters his first post-scandal start. The burning question surrounding Tiger these days isn’t whether the press will find more of his mistresses, it’s whether Tiger will find his swing. He’s winless since the 2009 Australian Masters, major-less in nearly three years, and still desperately trying to apply Sean Foley’s teachings. And it’s not just his full swing that’s plaguing him.

“I don’t think he’s putting quite as well as he used to,” 100-year-old Errie Ball, the only living competitor from the inaugural Masters, said in a phone interview last week. “And when the putter goes, watch out.”

Still, this could be Tiger’s week, right? The blessed moment when everything finally clicks? It’s a question golf fans have been pondering for months, even though there has been little indication that Woods is close to concluding “the process,” as he calls it. During a Sunday practice round in which he played the back nine first, Woods arrived on the first tee to find a small cluster of reporters waiting for him. He promptly yanked his first tee shot into the pines, then drove a second tee ball that barely made it halfway up the hill. “That went about 220,” he said.

More encouraging was the dazzling play of Mickelson over the weekend. Until Sunday, Lefty hadn’t claimed a Tour title since last year’s Masters, all the while having to field questions about the status of his arthritis and his wife and mother’s respective battles with cancer. There seemed to be more reasons why Mickelson wouldn’t win this week than why he would. Now, suddenly, he’s a no-brainer in your office pool.

Who else might prevail? If the first three months of this zany season is a harbinger of a champion to come, it could be just about anyone: Bubba Watson, Luke Donald … Mark Wilson? Sure, why not Mark Wilson? The man’s won twice already this year, and with warm, dry weather forecast for the rest of the week, the course will shorten up, a boon to bunters like him. D.A. Points? Surely he’s eager to prove he can win without Bill Murray at his side. Camilo Villegas? He’d look great in green. “I’ve got 40 names that I believe are possible winners,” CBS Sports analyst Nick Faldo said in a conference call today.

“There’s a lot of guys playing well right now,” Fowler said, “whether it be the Europeans or the guys in the U.S., a lot of young guys are playing well right now and they are not afraid to go out and contend in a major.”

Whether they can go out and win a major, however, is another story entirely.