The Masters arrives in the spring, when we northerners crave it most, beaming visions of sunshine and foliage into our living rooms, providing a reminder that humans may move about outdoors without winter-proofed boots.
For anyone with even a casual interest in golf, the Masters is welcomed. This year, the most familiar of major championships will also offer one of the most compelling fields in its picturesque history.
Bobby Jones invented the Masters, Arnold Palmer popularized it, and Jack Nicklaus dominated it, as much as any tournament can be dominated by an individual in a sport featuring massive fields.
Jimmy Demaret, Sam Snead, Gary Player, Nick Faldo and Phil Mickelson each won the tourney three times. Nicklaus won six, and Palmer and Tiger Woods rank second with four apiece.
If the Masters has lacked anything, it is a modern rivalry played out on on Augusta National on the back nine on Sunday. This week, strangely, could change that.
Despite their relative levels of greatness, Mickelson and Woods never held a 1-on-1 duel on Sunday afternoon at the Masters, and their advanced age, along with Woods’ personal and physical problems, hinted that they never would.
Their recent play has renewed the possibility of a latter-day, never-say-never match. A dramatic spring across the world of golf has birthed that and many other possibilities.
Woods has finished in the top 12 in four of his past six tournaments, including a second-place at the Valspar Championship. Mickelson has three top-10s in his past four tournaments.
In this calendar year, Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Jason Day, Gary Woodland, Bubba Watson, Mickelson, Justin Thomas, Paul Casey and Rory McIlroy have won on the PGA Tour.
This tournament will offer anything a storyteller or TV-watcher could want — the intrigue of Woods’ return, Mickelson’s stubborn excellence, Watson trying to win a third Masters from behind trees, Jordan Spieth trying to win a second despite the memory of two splashes at the 12th, and McIlroy, Johnson, Day, Thomas and Rickie Fowler trying to win a major that has eluded them.
Another of Woods’ once-supposed rivals, Sergio Garcia, won the tournament last year, a reminder that success at Augusta need not follow a logical schedule. Since Woods last won the Masters, Danny Willett, Charl Schwartzel, Angel Cabrera, Trevor Immelman and Zach Johnson have won it.
Woods’ dominance of the tour was replaced by a series of players who never knew they were supposed to be intimidated by him. Adam Scott replaced him as the world’s top-ranked golfer, then was succeeded by the likes of McIlroy, Spieth, Day and Johnson.
This week could provide what has long been golf’s dream scenario: a polished version of Woods facing those he once dominated, and those to whom he is a competitive godfather.
Rory or Bubba, DJ or JT could win the tournament by five strokes, but there is one possibility that will tether the casual fan to the screen:
Tiger vs. Phil, with Tiger trying to inch closer to Jack’s record for major titles and green jackets, and Phil trying to catch Tiger and Arnie on the all-time Masters list.
Woods ranks second in golf history with 14 major championships, and his presence helped limit Mickelson to five career majors. And while there is no comparison between the two, there is a statistic that favors Mickelson and would add intrigue to a possible duel between the two:
Woods has won zero majors since he turned 33. Mickelson has won five since turning 33.
They first played in the Masters together in 1995. Woods finished tied for 41st and, as an amateur, made nothing. Mickelson finished tied for seventh and made $70,950.
All these years later, they’re still competing, only now the stakes and purses are so much higher.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib