Masters week – among the most magical on the sports calendar – is upon us. Here are 10 storylines to follow:
The return of Tiger Woods to Augusta is the biggest story of the tournament – bar none. Woods missed the Masters for the first time since 1995 last season, and hasn’t played this season since withdrawing from February’s Farmers Insurance Open with back pain. He played two practice rounds at Augusta National last week. Tiger stat: The Masters is the only major tournament in which he’s never missed a cut as a pro.
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Rory McIlroy has victories in the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA championship. That leaves him one triumph away – the Masters – from a career grand slam, and his pursuit of that begins this week. Winning this year at Augusta would not only provide McIlroy with the career slam, but would also be his third consecutive major triumph (he won the British and PGA in 2014).
Defending champ Bubba Watson has won two of the past three Masters and is among the favorites to do so again. Among the key questions for him this year: What kind of down-home food will be on Watson’s menu at Tuesday’s champions dinner? In 2014, Watson served Caesar salad, grilled chicken breast, green beans, mashed potatoes, corn, macaroni and cheese and cornbread, with a dessert of confetti cake with vanilla ice cream.
Adam Scott, the 2013 champion, had done away with is belly putter (a club that will be banned beginning in 2016) this season, but he wasn’t happy with the results. So Scott will be bring it back for Augusta.
Breakthrough for Spieth?
The game’s next great player might be Jordan Spieth, 21, who has already won this season at the Hero World Challenge and lost in a playoff in March at the Valspar Championship, as well as Sunday at the Houston Open. He finished second in his Masters debut in 2014. Of all the youngsters, he has the best shot at breaking through at Augusta this year.
Dustin Johnson, a Columbia native who played at Coastal Carolina, recently took six months off for unspecified personal reasons. He has returned in fine form this season, already winning the World Golf Championships and finishing in the top five in two other tournaments. Johnson, who has a 67 to his credit at Augusta National, has never finished higher than 13th at the Masters.
No holding back Arnie
Honorary starters will again be Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, who will all hit ceremonial tee shots off the first tee early Thursday. Palmer, who has been recovering from a dislocated shoulder, has said he’ll be out there “even if I fan it.” But he won’t compete in Wednesday’s Par 3 Contest (reigning champion: Ryan Moore).
Older guys can still play
Nicklaus is the oldest Masters champion (he was 46 when he won in 1986). Is there anybody out there this year to shift that distinction from him? Fred Couples, 55, who won in 1992, has finished in the top 20 the past five seasons. Hard to see him contending this week, but that’s not bad. Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez finished fourth in 2014 just a few months after his 50th birthday.
There is still no wall-to-wall Masters television coverage, but ESPN will air 41/2 hours (3-7:30 p.m.) of first- and second-round play on Thursday and Friday, before CBS takes over on the weekend (3 p.m., Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday).
Who’s going to win? It says here that it will be FedEx Cup-leader Jimmy Walker, who has five victories over the past two seasons (including the Texas Open in March). He also played well (eighth in 2014) in his only other Masters appearance.