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Anyone's Ball Game

A Tiger-less Masters makes for compelling theater as more than a dozen players can make legitimate claims to be this week's favorite

April 8, 2014
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Anticipation is one of the most intense of emotions, creating the happiness that springs from having something to look forward to. And nothing in golf is as anticipated as the Masters. It is the game's happy place.

Not even a Tiger-less Masters can put a frown on the face of this tournament steeped in tradition, one in which the familiar contours of Augusta National Golf Club make the course as much of a star as the players.

Yes, Tiger Woods is not here, recovering from back surgery. His absence, however, hasn't produced anxiety but rather heightened the anticipation -- for this week and beyond.

Someone will drive out of Magnolia Lane Sunday with a green jacket, and perhaps even with a claim to being the best in the world. And that will only increase the desire to see Woods return and attempt to end a six-year drought by winning his 15th major but also reclaim No. 1.

The months -- and we really don't know how long it will be -- in which Woods rehabilitates provide an opportunity for someone else to climb to the top of the heap. And there seems to be plenty of contenders.

"I think if you're outside the top 50 in the world this week, you've got a great chance," joked U.S. Open champion Tuesday about a year in which Scott Stallings, Kevin Stadler, Russell Henley, Matt Every, Steven Bowditch and Matt Jones earned their way to Augusta with unlikely PGA Tour wins.

"It's kind of the way it's been."

Turning serious, Rose said that because of the local knowledge needed to win at Augusta National -- no first-time starter has won here since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 -- roughly 15 guys at Augusta "separate themselves a lot from the field. Always you can have the unknowns, that can happen, but I would say 15 guys are pretty strong favorites."

That's still a lot. Among those who have a chance to win the most wide-open Masters in recent memory are several who can knock Woods out of the top spot in the World Rankings this week. Adam Scott needs to finish no worse than in a two-way tie for third. Henrik Stenson has to finish no worse than in a two-way tie for second. Jason Day can move to No. 1 with a win.

"Yeah, there's absolutely motivation, but the motivation is just to play well," said Scott about the possibility of leaving Augusta with not just his second green jacket but also the top spot in the rankings. "I feel like my game is at a point where if I play well, I have got a chance to win this tournament. That's my goal that week. And the follow on from that would be world No. 1."

Beyond Scott, Stenson and Day there are several others who can push their way into the conversation for No. 1 with a win here, including Rose, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Matt Kuchar and Rory McIlroy, all of whom are in the top 10.

While the loss of Woods takes some luster off the tournament, and likely will hurt TV ratings, this is still the Masters, the most-watched event in golf.

"It's a big loss for the tournament any time a world No. 1 is not going to play," Scott says. "But, as every year here, this event produces something special no matter what. It just has a way of doing it, and it's not going to involve Tiger this year, but it will involve someone else and it will be a memorable event anyway."

We have transitioned into an odd era of parity in the pro game. For nearly two decades we knew Woods was No. 1 and Mickelson was No. 2, and were comfortable in the continuity of it. Now, when a Patrick Reed says he is one of the five best players in the world it has a ring of truth because there are about two dozen guys who can make that claim. A record 24 players earned their way into the Masters for the first time this year, a function of the fact that winless seasons by Woods, Mickelson, Rose, McIlory, Scott and Stenson have put more titles on the table for others to take.

"There's a lot of guys with the talent and the form that aren't necessarily standing out above others, but on their week, they are going to be tough to beat," Scott says. "There's probably a list of 20 guys you could go through here, if they play well, they are going to be there on Sunday at some point."

The image is of a stock-car race in which a pack of cars scramble for the lead. Now that they don't have Woods to draft off of, the chase is even more compelling.

Someone will win the Masters this week and, almost certainly, someone will dethrone Tiger during his absence. And that will only make us anticipate his return even more. Happiness, truly, is having something to look forward to.
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