One after another, some of the world’s best players and favorites to win the Masters trudged up the hill on the opening hole to start their practice rounds.
Phil Mickelson. Rory McIlroy. Adam Scott.
It was typical of any Tuesday at Augusta National, except for the scoreboard to the right of where they were walking. The board has the names of all 97 players in the field, with blank boxes to put their scores when the tournament begins. On the far right side of the board is a list of this year’s noncompeting invitees.
Tommy Aaron. Doug Ford. Tiger Woods.
“It’s a weird feeling not having him here, isn’t it?” said Phil Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion and the chief foil for Woods over the years. “He’s been such a mainstay in professional golf and in the majors. It’s awkward to not have him here. I hope he gets back soon. As much as I want to win — and I know how great he is and tough to beat — it makes it special when he’s in the field and you’re able to win.”
Woods is missing the Masters for the first time. His presence looms as large as some of the Georgia pines lining the fairways, though it will be forgotten when the opening shot is in the air today, and a green jacket is awarded on Sunday.
Even so, Woods brings a buzz to any tournament, even at Augusta National.
And this year, his absence has brought talk of the most wide-open Masters in nearly 20 years. Las Vegas oddsmakers have installed Scott and McIlroy as the betting favorites at 10-1, followed by Mickelson, Jason Day and Matt Kuchar at 12-1.
McIlroy had his own version of a betting sheet on the table where he sat during his interview — the tee times for the opening two rounds. Told that 97 players were in the field, the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland figured 70 had a chance to win.
“There’s a few past champions that play that might not be able to compete. There might be a few first-timers or a few amateurs that won’t compete,” McIlroy said. “But then you’ve got the rest. I’m just looking down the list here. Stewart Cink. Tim Clark. Ian Woosnam — no.”
The room filled with laughter as McIlroy smiled and said: “Sorry, Woosie,” referring to the 56-year-old former champion.
“You’ve got a lot of guys that can win, a lot of guys that have won PGA Tour events,” McIlroy said. “OK, we’re playing at Augusta. Because it’s the Masters and because it’s so big and so hyped up or whatever you want to say, you ought to remember that you’re still playing against the same guys you play with week in and week out.
“I’ve beaten them before,” he said. “They’ve beaten me before.”
The PGA Tour is 21 tournaments into the season, and only one player (Zach Johnson) won while he was in the top 10 in the world. McIlroy and Scott each had comfortable leads going into the final round and lost to players outside the top 100.
“I think in the past, certainly that’s been easy to go to events and look at a guy who is the guy to beat,” Scott said, not naming Woods because he did not need to. “I think that scope has kind of broadened now. There’s a lot of guys with the talent and the form that aren’t necessarily standing out above the others, but on their week, they’re going to be tough to beat.”
“I’d like to think my name is one of those guys,” Scott said. “And I feel like I’m going to be one of the guys who has got a chance if I play well this week.”