published Thursday, April 11th, 2013

Greeson: Masters gives hope for rebirth

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Good morning, spring. Hello, golf.

Sure, the calendar told us the equinox arrived last month, and the chance to put a tee in the dirt has been savored at every turn.

But today, Thursday at Augusta National, is the entrance to golf season. The picturesque drive down Magnolia Lane, the pathway from the gray winter to the colors of rebirth.

It's a kid's game perfected here at this former nursery buried deep in the Georgia pines, 140 miles east of the snarled asphalt jungle gym that is Atlanta.

The crowds will be overflowing, of course -- everyone is happy to see spring, even those with the worst allergies. If holidays were seasons, spring and Christmas would be kindred spirits, connected by their magnificence and giggling at the less popular choices such as winter and Valentine's Day over at the uncool table.

So with the return of spring and the focus of the golf and sports world comes the Masters, golf's first major and arguably the most tradition-rich event in all of sports.

There's Tiger Woods, of course. The game's top-ranked player is looking to end his major-less streak that is stretching toward five years. He's back as the world's No. 1 player -- a ranking he's amazingly held for roughly a third of his 37 years -- and his presence is felt across the sports landscape, even here where the patrons are among the most loyal and savvy in all of sports.

Heck, Tiger being in the mix has driven the price for a four-day tournament badge toward $7,000, which is what Julius Boros collected for finishing third behind Jack Nicklaus and Tony Lema here 50 years ago.

It's a different time and a different game. Jack won the first of his record six green jackets in 1963, and he remains the game's measuring stick, especially here.

And the man chasing the Golden Bear's gold standard is Woods, he of the 14 major wins and the swirling off-the-course drama and the river of physical ailments that have threatened to derail his once-certain pursuit of Jack's major record of 18.

Even here, though, the time waits for no one. Woods, the former new kid on the tee who now looks to rewrite history in the final chapters of his career, is 37. Yes, 37. Phil Mickelson will be 43 this summer.

The next wave of the game is here, fighting with legends before them who fought with the legends before them. Like the seasons, the change really is change in name only.

Woods' first major -- his historic charge here in 1997 -- will celebrate its Sweet 16th birthday Saturday. His record-setting win then was over names like Kite and Watson and Langer.

Now the tots are chasing Tiger, a trick that has been made easier by wounds suffered or self-inflicted in recent years.

But the order in golf -- like the colors in spring -- has returned. It's Woods and everyone else. It's the obvious pre-tournament pick and trying to convince yourself that another name will win.

Among those names are great storylines. There's our city's wonderboy, UTC senior Steven Fox, who was smiling and swinging, swinging and smiling through the famed par-3 contest here Wednesday. There's the 14-year-old amateur Tianlang Guan, who was almost 6 months old when Jose Maria Olazabal won here in 1999. There's the next moment for former No. 1 Rory McIlroy and the impossible encore for defending champ Bubba Watson, who snap-hooked a sand wedge into immortality here last year on the second playoff hole.

As we start this four-day sports fantasy, who will win?

Here are my top five:

• Robert Garrigus: Maybe it's the fact that local-boy-made-good caddie Brent Henley is on his bag. Maybe it's the fact that Garrigus hits it a country ton and that puts each of the par-5s here in the go zone. Either way, we like his chances as the name on the board Sunday that makes everyone say, "Who is that?"

• Phil Mickelson: It's been 10 years since Mike Weir became the first lefty to win here. In those 10 years, half the champs have been left-handed -- Weir, Watson and Mickelson three times.

• Keegan Bradley: He played well on the weekend here last year, including a 69 on Sunday, and has four consecutive top-10 finishes this year.

• Justin Rose: Has been sneaky consistent here -- think Freddie Couples without the luck -- with four top-20 finishes and never missing a cut in his seven Masters starts.

• Tiger Woods: Spring brings change, and the change back to the way things were is still change even it feels the same.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com.

about Jay Greeson...

Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...

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