AUGUSTA, Ga. — Welcome to the most wide-open Masters in years.
The absence of Tiger Woods has crystalized what has been a changing of the guard in golf.
The days of Woods as the red-hot favorite — or even one of a core of four or five players to watch — are over as the sport moves, for better or worse, into an era of parity.
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"Certainly in the past, it’s been easy to go to events and look at a guy who is the guy to beat," defending champion Adam Scott said of Woods. "I think that scope has broadened now. There’s a lot of guys with the talent and the form that aren’t necessarily going to stand out above others, but on their week, they are going to be tough to beat."
Jordan Spieth is 20 years old. Woods was still in college at that age. But Spieth has already won once on the PGA Tour and isn’t content to sit back and simply enjoy his first Masters. He’s here to become the first rookie to win since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
"I think it’s changed now," Spieth said. "I wasn’t out here when (Tiger) was as dominant as he was, percentage-wise. But I do know now with the younger guys not being scared to win, I think that can only be better for the game.
"You see Rory (McIlroy), who is so young, already with a couple majors, and Patrick (Reed) has already won three times within whatever it was, a six-month stretch, and he’s (23). It helps me when I’m on the course when I can see younger and younger guys winning golf tournaments, and I believe that it doesn’t take as much experience as maybe guys would have thought five years ago."
The conventional wisdom says Augusta National is a course that takes many years to properly learn. But Jason Day finished runner-up in 2011 on his first visit. Youngsters like Spieth aren’t willing to be patient.
"I can see where it’s difficult (without experience), definitely, but at the same time, I mean, if you’re hitting the ball well enough and you’re putting well enough, it doesn’t matter where you’re playing. You can still win the golf tournament," Spieth said. "I think there’s an emphasis on the lack of first-time winners but I don’t see that it’s a big deal at all. I think that if I get my game ready, then it’s possible."
McIlroy put the number of possible winners in the field this week at 70.
That’s perhaps high, but it reflects the growing trend of first-time winners on the PGA Tour. Indeed, there are a record 24 rookies (17 of them professionals) in the field this week.
So although McIlroy, Scott, Day and old-timers like Phil Mickelson (throw form out the window when it comes to Phil and the Masters, he rises to the occasion) may generate most of the headlines early in the week, watch out for the rookies.
Reed, obviously, needs to be considered because of his three wins, the most recent being the star-studded Cadillac Championship at Doral. He’s cocky and not afraid of putting himself in the running. Remember, too, that he played college golf at nearby Augusta State and has played many rounds at the National.
Jimmy Walker is 35 but a Masters rookie. Who’d be willing to bet against him after his three wins this season?
Jonas Blixt finished fourth at last year’s PGA Championship, Canada’s Graeme DeLaet was a breakout star last year and France’s Victor Dubisson is only 23 but already one of the game’s longest hitters with the deft touch around the greens required here. And then there’s Spieth, already one of the game’s best players.
But if I were to lean toward one rookie, it would be Harris English, who hits the ball prodigious distances — this is still a bomber’s course — and can make birdies by the bucketful.
The four-time all-American at Georgia was the third-youngest winner of his state’s amateur title. The two younger? Bobby Jones and Charlie Yates, two Masters legends.
Regardless of the winner, though, one thing is certain: The Masters will deliver excitement.
"This event produces something special no matter what," Scott said. "It just has a way of doing it, and it’s not going to involve Tiger this year, but it will involve someone else and it will be a memorable event, anyway."