Tiger Woods announced he will sit out the Masters, and he will be missed. But we’re getting used to his absence — this marks the second time he’ll miss the tournament in the last three years. What’s more, the cupboard isn’t exactly bare. In fact, this is shaping up to be an epic Masters even without the 14-time major winner, with so many great storylines we’re already salivating over the possibilities. Here are the nine tastiest ones:
Jordan Spieth wants to put the jacket on himself. Woods and Spieth share the record for the low 72-hole score at the Masters at 18 under par, but only Spieth was ever a real threat to win again this year. He has gone dormant since his eight-stroke romp at the Hyundai TOC in January, but he should be firing smoothly by the Masters, where all he’s done is tie for second and win wire-to-wire in two career starts. He’ll be hungry, too, having lost his No. 1 ranking to Jason Day. “It could be good for me,” Spieth said of losing the top spot. He looked pretty good at the WGC-Dell Match Play — for three rounds. All that’s left to do is keep it going for four.
You’d almost bet your house on Day. In the tradition of Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Woods and Phil Mickelson, Jason Day’s talents — long off the tee, happy hitting it right to left, an A+ scrambler — line up perfectly for Augusta. He tied for second in 2011, was third in 2013 and comes into this Masters looking for his third victory in three starts. His task: Rise above nerves, expectations and the aura of Augusta National and simply let the winning shots come off his clubs. “I don’t want him to put too much pressure on himself,” says Col Swatton, Day’s longtime caddie and swing coach. “He’s done well there in the past and everyone expects him to do well at Augusta, so I tell him to treat it like any other major.”
Rory McIlroy is close. Needing only to win the Masters for the career grand slam, McIlroy, 26, was in fine form from tee to green at the WGC-Dell. He faltered only on the greens as he lost to Day (barely) in the semifinals and to Rafael Cabrera-Bello in the consolation match. What if Rors hits it like that at Augusta and, gulp, has a good week on the greens? He’s already put his game face on, in a way, having announced he will skip the Par 3 Contest because, “It’s a distraction.”
Two words: Phil. Mickelson. Lefty hasn’t won since the 2013 British Open, and he’s 45. But with a retooled swing under new coach Andrew Getson, Phil has thrilled with two wins at the Dell and top-five finishes at Doral, Pebble Beach and PGA West. “Phil seems like he’s never played better in a lot of aspects of his game,” says Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee. Mickelson knows every blade of grass at Augusta and has been known to throw in a top-three finish there even without his A game. What will happen now that he feels like he’s got his swing back?
Bubba Watson is still the favorite for Low Lefthander. Let’s see: All Watson has done lately is finish second at Doral and win at Riviera. Oh, and he’s won two of the last four Masters. So yeah, you might want to have him on your fantasy team. How big a factor is Watson? He has almost singlehandedly prompted all the recent conversation over lengthening the par-5 13th hole.
Adam Scott is peaking. After cashing in at the Honda Classic and the WGC-Cadillac, Scott looks even more likely to win the green jacket than he did in 2013, when he became the first Aussie champ. No more anchoring? No problem. Between countrymen Scott and Day, Oz’s sporting fortunes haven’t looked this bright since the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Rickie Fowler could have a moment. Remember when Fowler kept sticking the landing at the watery, par-3 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass until he’d won the most exciting Players Championship in the last 20 years? Can you imagine the hysteria if he did that at Augusta? With top-10 finishes in three of his last four starts on Tour and a victory over an elite field at Abu Dhabi in January, he looks ready.
Louis is lurking. Oosthuizen, 33, is coming off a runner-up finish at the Dell as he heads to Houston to fine tune for Augusta. He will play with a couple of bombers, Tony Finau and Dustin Johnson, at the Shell, but he may knock it by them a time or two. Underrated King Louis — Masters runner-up in 2012 — is a roll of a ball from being a multiple major winner. Overlook him at your peril.
Johnson & Johnson: No more tears. Dustin Johnson, ninth in the world, Zach Johnson, 16th, won their respective pods at the Dell while notching top-10 finishes. So which is most likely to slip on the green jacket this year? Go with Dustin, whose form (T5 at the Dell, T14 at Doral, fourth at Riviera) suggests he’s ripe to win again. Plus he tied for sixth at Augusta last year. You can’t teach length, and all those close calls at the majors can’t last forever. Can they?