Jordan Spieth really isn’t considered the favorite. OK, he’s No. 2. He is No. 1 in his mind because, as he said last week before missing the cut at the Houston Open, he knows he can “strike fear” in the hearts of his rivals at Augusta. He can.
Some things haven’t changed, of course.
No substantive course alterations have been made since last April, even though the club has purchased land where the new press building sits and might well lengthen the fourth and fifth holes. That way, the bombers will have an even greater advantage; the wide fairways and lack of rough already enable them.
Tiger Woods, missing for the third time in four years, still isn’t healthy enough to play, although he was at the clubhouse for the cottage pies and prime rib that last year’s champion, Englishman Danny Willett, served at the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night.
Jack Nicklaus is still the smartest man in the room.
So who, exactly, is the favorite, and for whom should America root?
The favorite — assuming he recovers from Wednesday’s tumble on a staircase — has to be the robotic Johnson, who won his third consecutive start when he captured the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play tournament in Austin and has his mind as straight as his drives. Now that he’s added a fade to his arsenal, he’s the prohibitive favorite.
But there are several other candidates to pull for.
Spieth is obvious. He’s never finished lower than a tie for second in his three starts here, and he handled his 2016 meltdown with class and grace. Never mind that he hasn’t reached weekend play in his last two tournaments in Houston and Austin. He’s still got massive game and even bigger confidence.
All Longhorns should pull for him as well as Jhonattan Vegas, who has a pair of PGA Tour wins and comes here for a second time after missing the cut in 2011. Lump Sergio Garcia in there as well, since he’s an adopted Longhorn with his engagement to former Texas quarterback Marty Akins’ daughter, Angela.
Mickelson is another. He knows this course like the back of his hand, which usually slaps those who violate the integrity of the game, and he showed in his battles with Henrik Stinson at last year’s British Open and with Garcia in the Ryder Cup that he’s still sharp enough to aim for a fourth green jacket, even at 46 years old.
All AARP members will be behind Phil.
Jon Rahm, the powerful 22-year-old Spaniard who pushed Johnson in the Dell final, is part of the new wave of the next great golfers and my dark horse to win. He joins Justin Thomas, Spieth’s 23-year-old buddy, and 2013 U.S. Amateur champion and third-time Masters qualifier Matt Fitzpatrick, who’s only 22 but looks 8. Asked if he’s got Augusta figured out, Fitzpatrick was mature enough to answer, “I don’t think so.” Got to love that kind of honesty.
All millennials are likely to root for them.
Jason Day has to be a sentimental favorite. The 2016 Dell winner had to withdraw during the first round of this year’s Dell Match Play to be with his mother, who underwent cancer surgery in which a quarter of her left lung was removed. He teared up at Austin Country Club and was just as emotional in discussing her recovery Tuesday.
Anyone with a heart has to hope he wins.
Bubba Watson, always a gallery favorite, has won the Masters twice and might introduce green golf balls here.
Austinites who can appreciate weird might be rooting for him.
Gary Woodland, a 32-year-old Kansas Jayhawk, lost one of the twins that his wife, Gabby, was carrying, tragic news that occurred when he was competing in the Dell field.
The golf gods have to be backing him.
Then there’s Rory McIlroy, the candid and colorful 27-year-old from Northern Ireland. He stewed at Americans’ rowdy reception at last fall’s Ryder Cup. He defended his round of golf with a certain tweeting, polarizing president. He blasted Muirfield for not inviting female members until now. And he needs a green jacket to become the sixth player to complete the Grand Slam.
I’m not real sure who’s pulling for him. Probably Trump and Muirfield and Americans are not. A respectful Spieth said of McIlroy, “Can I say he’s a bad ass here?”
He can, and he did. And I’ll say he’s bad enough to win it all this week.