Masters begins and for some, so does the golf season
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, hits a drive on the 15th hole during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament April 5, 2017, in Augusta, Ga. (Matt Slocum/AP)
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The author David Owen explained in his opening line of "Making of the Masters" why so much anticipation filters through dogwoods and Georgia pines at Augusta National the first full week of April.
"The modern golf season never ends," he wrote, "but it does begin."
There could be some debate on when the 83rd Masters begins.
First on the tee Thursday morning are Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, with nine green jackets between them, hitting an honorary tee shot in a tradition that dates to 1963. The Masters is all about tradition.
Andrew Landry will hit the official opening tee shot of the tournament. Landry is among 17 newcomers to the Masters, and he had to wait the longest to make his debut having won the Texas Open 354 days ago.
And then there's Tiger Woods, who resumes his quest for another green jacket -- or any major for that matter -- at 11:04 a.m. alongside Li Haotong of China and Jon Rahm of Spain, who beat Woods in Ryder Cup singles last fall.
Woods won his fourth Masters in 2005 when he was 29, and he was certain more would follow. So did everyone else.
He is going on 14 years since his last green jacket, and 11 years since his 14th and most recent major.
"I would say that I wouldn't have foreseen that, for sure," Woods said. "After I won my 14th, I felt like I still had plenty more major championship that I could win, but unfortunately, I just didn't do it."
A good start would help. Woods didn't break par until the final round last year.
But a good start for Woods at the Masters usually means a round that is not over par. He has only broken 70 once in his 19 previous appearances as a pro.
The Masters is all that's keeping Rory McIlroy from joining the most elite club in golf -- only five other players dating to the creation of the Masters in 1934 have won all four majors. McIlroy played in the final group last year, three shots behind winner Patrick Reed, and faded. He had a four-shot lead in 2011 and imploded.
"I would dearly love to win this tournament one day," McIlroy said. "If it doesn't happen this week, that's totally fine. I'll come back next year and have another crack at it."
History suggests he might not want to wait too long. The last three players to complete the Slam -- Woods, Nicklaus and Player -- never waited more than three years to get the last leg. The Masters is the fifth try to McIlroy.
The only big change at Augusta National for this Masters is the fifth hole, which players already considered a difficult par 4.
Now it's 40 yards longer. Big hitters who used to hit a short iron are now hitting a mid-iron, while everyone else is hitting as much as a 4-iron. All the attention at Augusta National is on Amen Corner, but the stretch on the front nine is where rounds can get lost.
It starts with the 240-yard fourth hole, followed by the 495-yard fifth hole and ends with a downhill, 180-yard sixth hole with different plateaus that can often lead to three-putt bogeys, if not worse.
"I would have said 11 is the toughest hole on the course prior to the new No. 5," Jordan Spieth said.
Augusta National likes to say it has the course "right where we want it." Not so much this year.
Heavy rain during prime growing conditions in the winter made it a challenge. The course is in excellent shape, but more rain last week and on Tuesday has left it so soft that even the humming of sub-air systems won't be able to make this firm and fast, especially with scattered showers in the forecast.
"Given the recent rainfall, the course will not play as firm and as fast as we would like it," club chairman Fred Ridley says.
BATTLE FOR THE TOP
One reason this Masters seems to be so wide-open again is that so many players are playing so well.
The top five in the world ranking -- Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson, McIlroy, Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas -- all have a mathematical chance to reach No. 1 in the world by winning the Masters.
Then again, that's nothing new. The last seven Masters champions were among the top 25 in the world when they won.
Eight of the top 10 players in the world already have won on the PGA Tour this season, and any of them could emerge on the back nine Sunday. But of the top 15 in the world, only one player has ever won the Masters: Tiger Woods.