By MIKE ANTHONY
The Augusta skies on Monday weren’t so friendly, but even a bit of a soggy start to the week couldn’t drown out the fact that it is once again time for The Masters.
Each April, thousands of patrons flock to the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club, ready to take in one of golf’s greatest tournaments at the game’s most storied course. And waiting for them each spring are the ghosts of tournaments past, along with a field full of the world’s best vying for the current year’s championship.
By now, the tournament – as well as the legends and lore that surround it – are well known to anyone with a serious interest in golf. However, that doesn’t mean that the interest isn’t growing. Due to a shakeup in the event calendar this season, The Masters is no longer just the first major of the season, but is also the beneficiary of nearly two months of big events and strong competition that has better set the table for the magic that awaits at Augusta National.
The traditional west coast swing began 2019 and was followed, as usual, by a month spent in sunny Florida. The twist came when The Players Championship – commonly referred to as the fifth major and proudly touting itself as having the strongest field of any tournament each year – moved to March from its usual spot in May.
The Players lived up to its reputation, with superstars all over the top of a leaderboard that was topped by Rory McIlroy. The March positioning of the event, combined with the always-popular match play tournament two weeks later, has had the game’s top players in constant competition and has grabbed the full attention of some fans who otherwise wouldn’t be tuning in for their first rounds of the year until Thursday.
The Masters is no longer a welcoming into a spring and summer full of action on the links – it’s now a glowing centerpiece of what is already an exciting season with plenty of storylines.
Patrick Reed is the defending champion at Augusta, but has been mostly quiet since his big win last April. The fact that Reed led Augusta State to a national championship in his college days and that he has nearly as many detractors as supporters makes him a must-follow throughout the week.
Rory McIlroy has been the most consistently dominant force in majors over the last decade, winning four of them since capturing the U.S. Open in 2011. Of course, McIlroy could have notched his first major win a few months earlier that year if not for a drastic collapse at Augusta on Sunday’s second nine. This week will mark McIlroy’s fifth consecutive Masters where a victory would give him a career Grand Slam.
Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth have combined to win just once since the beginning of the new PGA season back in October, yet both need to be considered this week. Fowler is firmly in the conversation of best player without a major title. Meanwhile, Spieth’s recent struggles can’t downplay the fact that he seems to be at his best anytime The Masters’ green jacket is at stake. After all, the last time Spieth was seen at Augusta, he was giving the course record a run for its money and nearly completing the greatest Sunday comeback in tournament history.
And then there is Tiger.
Sure, he hasn’t won at Augusta since 2005. And sure, he hasn’t won any major championship since the U.S. Open in 2008. But a win at the Tour Championship to conclude the 2018 season proved that Woods is capable of more than just a one-off great round and can actually compete with – and beat – the best in the world in a huge tournament setting. Regardless of results at Augusta, it will be a long time before Woods cedes the title of biggest draw on the course.
So here’s to another week of some of the best golf in the world, played at a living and breathing shrine to the game. Sunday’s jacket ceremony still seems a long way off, but this is just one week of the year and it’s always gone before you know it.
It’s Masters week. Soak it all in.
Mike Anthony is sports editor for the Statesboro Herald, a Morris Multimedia property in Statesboro, Ga.