published Thursday, April 5th, 2012

Golf's best enter the Masters with early-season momentum

Sergio Garcia, right, of Spain, watches as Luke Donald, of England, chips to the second green during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament Wednesday, April 4, 2012, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Sergio Garcia, right, of Spain, watches as Luke Donald, of England, chips to the second green during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament Wednesday, April 4, 2012, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Photo by Associated Press.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The field at the Masters is always stacked with golf's best.

Every year the top 50 players in the world at the moment, the top 30 golfers on the PGA Tour money list from last year, and the winners of five prestigious amateur events all drive down Magnolia Lane for a chance to win the green jacket.

But rarely, if ever, have those at the top of the field entered the Masters with such early season success.

Six of the top 10 players in the field have claimed one of 16 PGA Tour events already this year. And that does not include Phil Mickelson -- ranked No. 14 -- who won the Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

Add to that list Keegan Bradley, the last man to win a major who also won the Byron Nelson Championship earlier this year. And don't forget No. 22 on the list Brandt Snedeker, who won the RBC Heritage.

"You have to remember, there's 90-plus players in this field," Rory McIlroy said. "It's not just about two guys or three guys or whatever. "Every guy has to just think about themselves and try to play the golf course as best they can."

There are many players who can win the tournament. But none are as favored -- by fans and odds-makers -- as McIlroy, Mickelson and Tiger Woods.

They are the superstars of the sport, and the Masters is the center stage of golf.

The No. 1 player in the world, Luke Donald, will assuredly have smaller galleries than Woods, Mickelson or McIlroy. That's fine with him.

"Tiger is always the guy that pushes the needle the most, and obviously Rory gets a lot of attention now," Donald said. "But for me, that's probably a good thing. I can kind of go about my business and just get on with things."

Woods was victorious in his last event, winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational by five strokes. He was one of only three players to shoot 70 or better in the final round.

The immediate question became: "Is he back?"

Woods gave a partial answer then at Bay Hill. He could emphatically end debate about his return to golf's leading role on Sunday by winning what would be his fifth green jacket and 15th major.

"You know, I think I have more types of shots than I did in 2000," Woods said of the memorable season in which he won the U.S. Open by 15 shots, then won the British Open and claimed the PGA Championship. "As far as controlling my game, I feel like I'm hitting the ball just as consistently day-in and day-out as I did then."

McIlroy turned 11-years-old in 2000. He aged more than a year in one afternoon at the final round of last year's Masters. He led through 63 holes then triple-bogeyed No. 10 on Sunday and finished an 8-over-par 80 on the day.

"I wasn't ready to win the Masters; I wasn't ready to win a major," said McIlroy, who rebounded from that disappointment to win the U.S. Open last June. "I really needed to think about what I needed to do to improve mentally and in different aspects of my game."

McIlroy crushed the field at Congressional for his first major title two months following his Masters meltdown.

"I'm coming back here a much more experienced player and feel like a much better player," McIlroy said. "A lot of things have changed in the last 12 months. I've come back here the same person but just with a different attitude."

Last year, McIlroy learned how to throw a football before the Masters. Then he learned to win a major. Perhaps he's learned how to win the Masters.

But he might not be the only one who's learned that lesson.

about David Uchiyama...

David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...

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