Will the three-year streak of different players winning major championships continue at this week’s Masters Tournament?
Or will a familiar face such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson or Rory McIlroy “get the W,” as Woods likes to say, and add to their major collection?
That is just one of many fascinating storylines for the 76th Masters Tournament, which begins Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club.
The 96 players in the field will start at 7:50 a.m., after the tee shots of the “Big Three” honorary starters – Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and newcomer Gary Player – who have 13 green jackets among them.
Since Padraig Harrington’s victory in the 2008 PGA Championship, there have been no multiple-major winners. In order, the winners have been Angel Cabrera, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink, Y.E Yang, Mickelson, Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Keegan Bradley.
“I think that might change this week,” Northern Ireland’s McDowell said of the streak.
Woods, who said this week that it’s been “a very long time” since he had “the speed and the pop” in his game that he does now, is on his way back. He ended a 30-month winless streak on the PGA Tour with a victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in late March and is ranked seventh in the world. The winner of 14 major championships hasn’t won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open. The last of his four Masters titles came in 2005.
“Tiger Woods has been off the scene for a few years,” McDowell said when asked to explain the lack of multiple winners. “He was proficient there for so many years. Phil has been off and on. Those two guys have kind of taken a back seat a little bit and allowed the younger players to step up to the plate and get their confidence going. The belief system has kicked in.”
Jason Day, who tied for second place last year with the lowest 72-hole total ever by a Masters rookie, is one of the new guard who learned to win while Woods was having his problems.
“A lot of guys five, six, seven years ago were caught up in what he was doing and not themselves,” Day said of Woods. “And that’s how they made poor decisions or mental errors, and that’s how Tiger came back a lot.”
There are plenty of contenders to keep the streak of “different” major champions alive, headed by four of the top five players in the World Golf Ranking, none of whom has won a major. They are No. 1 Luke Donald, No. 3 Lee Westwood, No. 4 Hunter Mahan and No. 5 Steve Stricker.
The No. 2-ranked player, McIlroy, does have a major championship (last year’s U.S. Open) and is determined to pick up the green jacket he left behind during a final-round back nine of 43 last year. That took him from a four-shot lead at the start of play that day to a tie for 15th.
“I’m coming back here a much more experienced player and feel like a much better player than the player that came here last year,” said McIlroy, who shot a Sunday 80 after opening rounds of 65-69-70 gave him at least a share of the lead at the end of each day.
“Rory, I think he’s a one-in-a-million talent,” Ben Crenshaw said. “He’s so young, but he’s mature golfwise. He’s a little bit like Tiger when he was that age. That’s pretty rare.”
The pretournament talk has centered on the possbility of a clash of the old guard (the 36-year-old Woods) and the new (the 22-year-old McIlroy). Predictably, most players aren’t buying the “two-man show” prediction.
McIlroy and Woods might indeed be in the mix because they are playing so well, but so are Donald, Mickelson, Stricker and Mahan. All those players have won on the PGA Tour this season – Mahan twice.
“It feels like there are a lot of guys very sharp right now,” said McDowell, who was a runner-up to Woods at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month. “The top players in the world are winning. The best players are playing better this year. A lot of guys in the top 20 in the world are playing very, very good. This has a bit of a buzz about it. The fact Tiger is back playing well again adds to the buzz.”
“There’s a lot of great players in this field and a lot of people with great chances to win,” McIlroy said.
Woods said that although he experienced “pure joy” when he won at Bay Hill, “it’s not like winning a major championship or anything.”
Australia’s Geoff Ogilvy said Woods is looking like his old self.
“He’s back in a place he is playing a lot better than he was,” Ogilvy said. “He had that swagger at Bay Hill that he used to have. … I think the mental side is back, that kind of being comfortable in the lead mentality, spinning the club all the time and playing better when he needed to.
“I don’t think he is as good as he was when he was winning these majors by 15, 12 and nine shots. He’s got a long way to go to get back to there. But he’s clearly going to be favored or close to favored every time he tees it up now, whereas for a while there it probably wasn’t true.”
Fellow Aussie Adam Scott agreed, to a point.
“Time will tell whether he separates himself from everyone in the game again,” Scott said. “He hasn’t had enough time and results to do that, but he might.”
What if the pretournament storyline unfolds as predicted, and Woods and McIlroy separate themselves from the field on the back nine Sunday?
“I’d love to see it,” Crenshaw said. “The whole world would love to see it.”
If it happens, Paul Casey believes, Woods would prevail.
“Tiger’s got, what four of these?” Casey asked, referring to Masters wins. “There’s no question, when Tiger was on his game back in 2000, you’ve got to say Tiger. Currently, it’s a very close call. They’ve both won this year. Rory is a major champion, and we saw what he did in three rounds around here last year. We know what he’s capable of. We’ve seen Tiger do that as well. If they’re both on the best of their game. I’ve got to give the edge to Tiger.”
McIlroy said he would love to be in the hunt with Tiger on Sunday.
“I’m just looking forward to hopefully getting myself in contention and giving myself a chance, and maybe coming up against the best player of – maybe the best player ever; definitely the best player of the last 20 years,” McIlroysaid.