Greeson: Wide-open Masters tees off

Greeson: Wide-open Masters tees off

April 10th, 2014 by Jay Greeson in Sports - Columns

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Last time we were here, we celebrated Adam Scott ending the Aussie curse with an elongated putter in a spring Georgia rain that washed away a career of frustrating shortcomings for the man and a lifetime of agony for his country.

Yes, the Masters means that much.

Scott, who enters this week with the look of a man more comforted by his resume-changing win than saddled with increased expectations, rides in the front of a Tiger Woods-less pack this week.

It's strange, of course, to look at the final column of the field-wide leader board and see the gaping hole between 'Woodland' and 'Woosnam' left by the absence of golf's biggest star from golf's biggest stage.

"It's a weird feeling not having him here, isn't it?" three-time Masters champ Phil Mickelson asked this week. "He's been such a mainstay in professional golf and in the majors. ... I hope he's back for the other majors, and as much as I want to win and I know how great he is and tough to beat, it also makes it -- it makes it special when he's in the field and you're able to win."

Tiger's absence long-term is a huge question for golf, but this week it is merely a precursor here at Augusta National, where dead trees earn memorials and the individual holes are nearly as famous as the men who have made history on them.

There's Mize's chip and Couples' shot staying dry. There's Jack's birdie barrage around the back nine in '86 and Tiger's chip on No. 16 that sent Chris DiMarco to the television booth.

All of those great moments were made equally great by the men and the moment. The course getting equal billing as the craftsmen, making this weekend more than a little immune to Tiger's absence. Sure, there will be casual fans who many not make Sunday appointment watching with Tiger not in the mix. Still, considering how he was playing lately, Woods struggling through the first two rounds and leaving the weekend to everyone else would have sent the causal looking around anyway.

So without Tiger, where does the game stand? That question will be better served and better answered when the PGA Tour kicks back up next week. When the PGA lands at Hilton Head or Charlotte or fill in the blank with whatever financial organization-sponsored event, and Tiger is not in the mix, that should worry the caretakers of the game more than what will happen at the corner of Washington and Berckmans this week.

"The Tiger effect on golf has been huge from the mid-90s up until now," Rory McIlroy said. "You know having Tiger in a tournament definitely creates more buzz, more of an atmosphere.

"But no matter who is in contention or who is going to win this week, the Masters always provides a great finish regardless who is there."

So who will be there?

It could be Phil, the other mega-star in golf who is easily identified by his first name only.

It could be any number of the young, up-and-comers who are making their Masters debuts, guys such as major championship rookie and three-time PGA Tour winner Jimmy Walker or even two-time tour victor Harris English, a Baylor School graduate. Twenty-four players are making their first Masters appearance this week, and the pressure and surroundings are not lost on any of them.

"I think it's more like nerves and all the atmosphere," said English, who will be among the two dozen players looking to be the first player since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 to win in their first Masters start. "This is golf's stadium right here. It's the tournament I always dreamed about playing and it's finally here."

So without the game's perennial favorite, how wide open is this event?

"How many are playing," McIlroy asked back only half-joking . "I would say 70. I mean obviously there's a few past champions that play that might not be able to compete. There might be a few first-timers or a few amateurs.

"But the rest; I'm just looking down the list here -- Stewart Cink; Tim Clark; Ian Woosnam, no; John Huh... sorry Woosie."

McIlroy's playful jabs at Woosnam, the 1991 Masters champ, aside, the field is as open as the questions about golf's future without Woods.

So who do you like? There are few wrong choices and the names like Matt Kuchar or Nick Watney or Lee Westwood who have been regular contenders looking for their first major are possibilities.

The list of former Masters winners highlighted by Fred Couples and Angel Cabrera and the defending champion Scott who routinely contend here also deserves some consideration. (Sorry again Woosie.)

That said, since Scott lifted the seal and delviered a Green Jacket to the Great Down Under, let's stay there again this week.

Here's saying it will be Jason Day, an Aussie like Scott, who bombs his way around the famed and hallowed grounds to a career-defining weekend. And like Scott, who organized the annual champions dinner with a seafood spread that made Day cringe, his countryman would love the chance to plan the menu.

"Hopefully one day, I'll be able to pkan a dinner, and it definitely will be a real Australian meal," said Day, who is allergic to seafood and curled his nose at the lobster-based feast Scott presented. "We'll see how it goes."

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com