Things went downhill from there, but all the same it’s the one major where absolutely anything can happen, providing any particular player, young or old, hot or cold, can truly imagine himself as a perfect fit for the green jacket, if only for a few glorious days.
Where else could a champion go 23 years between victories, a gap that astonished peers at both ends of that golden career arc and still does today? Jack Nicklaus did that at the Masters.
What other major has a kiddie club of winners, with the all-time scoring record shared by a couple of guys who were 21 when lightning struck? Tiger Woods and Spieth did that at the Masters.
It’s a chutes-and-ladders dynamic at Augusta National, with shortcuts to the top and the bottom of the field built right in. No high rough to guarantee bogeys when a drive is off line. No flat and docile putting surfaces to promise success to the long-distance drivers.
And best of all, it’s the same course they played last year, the same course they’ve been watching on television since childhood. Every other major championship is a moving target, shifting from one site to another. The Masters waits, welcoming and familiar, and still there are superstars who can’t crack the code.
Dustin Johnson is No. 1 in the world and riding a three-tournament win streak, which should mean he’ll be winning his first Masters very soon, but now comes the news from his agent that D.J. injured his back Wednesday afternoon in a fall at the Augusta home he is renting.
This is a shocking development, like when Nicklaus had to withdraw just prior to his second-round tee time in the 1983 Masters because of back spasms. Johnson reportedly hopes that rest and treatment will allow him to play Thursday, but the signs are not good, and all signs need to be in order to win the Masters.
Former No. 1’s like Greg Norman and Ernie Els never did. Same goes for a couple of today’s most dominant young stars, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day.
“You have guys that came close,” said Els, who twice was a Masters runner-up, in 2000 and 2004, “and then you get guys like Phil and Tiger and Bubba (Watson). Certain courses just give you things and they played with a different mentality.
“You have to be a little loose and play the shots. I was always a little bit tight. You have to let the course come to you.”
One of Augusta National’s ultimate winners would simply like to be able to come to the course.
Tiger counts four Masters titles among his 14 major championships, including a record 12-stroke victory here 20 years ago, but he’s missing the tournament for the second consecutive year because of back surgeries.
Tiger attended the Champions Dinner at Augusta National Tuesday night hosted by defending champion Danny Willett. According to Mark O’Meara, who sat next to him there, Woods is “struggling.”
“[The pain] is pretty much in the same area in his lower back that he’s had the surgeries on,” O’Meara told the Golf Channel. “But he’s such a competitor that he can’t come out and play half of what he did.”
One day, if Tiger ever gets back, he’ll be a legitimate threat to contend again, even at a fraction of his former self. Knowledge of the course, with all of its mysterious twists and turns, is such an advantage over those who simply overpower other layouts.
That’s how Sam Snead won the Masters at 41, and how Ben Crenshaw did it at 43. Just last year, Bernhard Langer, a two-time Masters champion, played himself within two strokes of the 54-hole lead. It didn’t end well because of a Sunday 79, but the guy was 58 years old. He wasn’t supposed to be playing on Sunday in the first place.
Weather is a complicating factor this year, with blustery winds forecast for the first few rounds and the potentially soggy aftermath of Wednesday’s heavy rains to manage. Again, however, it’s a smaller, elite field, with just 94 players teeing it up and some of them largely ceremonial. Mickelson figures he can take a run at victory at the age of 46 if the winds blow his way, and if his scrambling skills are keen.
Why not? Lefty has missed the Masters cut twice in the last three years, but in between is sandwiched a tie for second place with three rounds in the 60’s.
Whatever else, the course, with its subterranean air system, should be ready. Masters chairman Billy Payne spoke Wednesday of “maybe, just maybe, the best turf conditions ever.”
That’s saying a lot, but superlatives are another Masters tradition.
Nobody walks onto these grounds without feeling a tingle. It’s the expectation that something amazing is about to happen, and it’s the realization that it just might happen to them.