AUGUSTA, Ga. -- As Masters go, this is the most anticipated since 2001, when Tiger Woods won his fourth major in a row and completed the Tiger Slam. But even that one falls short to the buzz already surrounding Augusta National GC this week. The storyline line then was all about Woods, about whether he could get it done. This time around there are a half-dozen compelling scenarios that could play out -- including ones involving Woods.
Shortly after 6 a.m. Monday, traffic was already at a crawl on Washington Road outside the grounds of Augusta National. A quick survey of the signs being held up indicated that more people were looking to buy Masters tickets than to sell them. No one knows exactly what's going to happen this week, but everyone wants to be there when it does.
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Story No. 1, of course, is Woods. Was the victory two weeks ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational a turning point or a tease? Is he ready to resume his run at the Jack Nicklaus record of 18 professional major championships -- he has been stuck at 14 since 2008 -- or did he simply win because it was a Bay Hill course with which he is exhaustively familiar?
But unlike in 2001, this Masters is about much more than just Woods. Can Phil Mickelson get his fourth green jacket, tying him with Woods and Arnold Palmer for second-most behind the six by Nicklaus, and pick up his fifth overall major, tying him with Byron Nelson and Seve Ballesteros? Exactly how much desire is left in the 41-year-old Mickelson?
That 64 in the final round at the AT&T by Mickelson while paired with Woods indicated Mickelson still has great golf left in him. Tiger motivates Mickelson; so do the majors, especially the Masters. Lefty is certainly putting his work in. Last week he practiced at Augusta National three days, following up on earlier trips to the course.
And what about the kids? Can Rory McIlory gain a measure of redemption for the 80 he posted in the final round of last year's Masters when it appeared he'd get his first major, a goal he achieved in his very next try, at the U.S. Open at Congressional? More broadly, is McIlroy ready to stake his claim to being the best player in the world? Another major this year would be a big step in that direction.
Which brings us to Luke Donald, the current No. 1 in the World Ranking despite never having won a major. Could that blemish on his resume be removed this week at Augusta National? And if that's not enough, you can throw out a bushel of other names capable of winning here this week -- Justin Rose, Hunter Mahan, Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley, Lee Westwood and Kyle Stanley, to name a few.
Coming back to the Masters each year is like a green-jacketed version of Where's Waldo? There are always changes to Augusta National, but they often have to be discovered. Rarely are you told about them.
This year, the scoring hut behind the 18th green is gone and players will now sign their cards near the pro shop. The golf course looks as it always does -- so well-manicured it appears as if no one has ever set foot upon it.
Part of what makes the Masters special is that it has a rhythm all its own. No one runs on the golf course, for example, and those that do are politely warned that it is just not done at Augusta National. The fans are knowledgeable -- many the next in several generations of their family to have Masters badges - and they respond with insight and enthusiasm.
Truly, Augusta National is a treat for all the senses. There are the sights and smells of the azaleas, dogwood and magnolia. And then there are the sounds. The combination of the large galleries, vast elevation changes and towering pines amplifies the roars in a very special way.
On Monday, when Martin Kaymer made a hole-in-one while skipping his ball across the water on No. 16 -- a practice round tradition at Augusta National -- the roar stopped those standing under the massive live oak behind the clubhouse, forcing them to look in the direction of the ovation. "And it's only Monday," one of the spectators said. Indeed.
The energy of Masters week builds with the roiling anticipation akin to being reunited with a long absent love. Practice rounds on Monday and Tuesday, the Par-3 contest Wednesday and then it all begins on Thursday, this year with Nicklaus, Palmer and Gary Player hitting ceremonial opening tee shots.
When it ends late Sunday afternoon, the drama will be played out upon one of the finest golf courses anywhere, a layout etched into the mind of even casual golf fans because the Masters is the only major played on the same course every year.
People know what to expect. They understand the subtle treachery of the first seven holes. They know the back nine has two of the best par-3 holes in all of golf and that the two back-nine par 5s are brilliant risk/reward holes where a player can make a 3 or a 7 -- winning or losing the tournament.
Because this tournament is played every year on this course built by Bob Jones and Alister MacKenzie, the memories linger a little more vividly. Gene Sarazen and the albatross in 1935; Sam Snead and Ben Hogan winning five of six Masters from 1949 through 1954. Palmer, Player and Nicklaus taking eight of nine green jackets 1958-66; The great shootout of 1975 won by Nicklaus and Jack's last in 1986.
And then there was 2005, the last time Woods won at the place "Tiger-Proofed" to keep him from dominating. The memories here are piled like firewood stored away for a long winter. But this time it is all about looking forward, not back. The anticipation is that this could be a Masters that will be remembered with the best of them. We shall see. That's why they play the game.
-- Ron Sirak