AUGUSTA, Ga. — In the moment, with the Masters about to commence, it feels like expectations could scarcely be higher for a golf tournament. If we were able to line up an ideal ensemble cast of the most intriguing characters, we might come up with exactly the list of who enters this week with a legitimate chance to win. When Phil Mickelson heard that the 82nd version of this event just might be the most highly anticipated, he replied, “I agree.”
“A lot of the top-quality players, young and old, are playing some of their best golf,” Mickelson said. “And I think that’s going to lead to one of the most exciting Masters in years.”
One of the most exciting Masters in years. Consider what that means.
More exciting than, say, last year, when eternally star-crossed Sergio Garcia had a putt to win his first major on the 72nd hole, missed it, then won in a playoff anyway? More exciting than 2015, when Jordan Spieth announced his presence at age 21, winning wire to wire? More exciting than playoff victories for Bubba Watson and Adam Scott in 2012 and ’13, or Charl Schwartzel birdieing the final four holes on a frantic Sunday in 2011? And we haven’t even counted the seven victories Mickelson and Tiger Woods, each expected to contend again this week, have between them.
And yet, we bring you 2018 — and what could happen. Hang on.
“This is my 42nd Masters,” the tournament’s new chairman, Fred Ridley, said. “I have never been a part of this week where there’s been any more excitement.”
With all due respect to the sport’s other major championships, they never generate this kind of buzz. Consider why.
This year’s U.S. Open will be held at Shinnecock Hills, the breathtaking course in the Hamptons, and the golf historians among us will remember that’s where, 14 years ago, the greens rolled like marble and Retief Goosen issued Mickelson a difficult defeat. The British Open will take place at venerable Carnoustie in Scotland, and if you didn’t have to look up that Padraig Harrington won there in 2007, or that Ben Hogan and Tom Watson and Gary Player all made history there as well, then switch off the Golf Channel, put down the Herbert Warren Wind and diversify your interests.
The Masters, this week and next year and a decade from now and beyond, will be held at Augusta National Golf Club. Always and forever. It doesn’t change.
Familiarity is supposed to breed contempt. But for all the club’s well-earned controversial history over issues of inclusion, the course itself is beloved for annually producing memorable competition among the most compelling names the sport can provide.
“It’s the perfect golf tournament,” Rory McIlroy said.
Take McIlroy as an example of why we hold expectations for this tournament that we just don’t for other majors. McIlroy has never won here. But at 28, he has a history in this event, which means a history at this place, one that follows him here each April. McIlroy is pursuing the career Grand Slam this week; the Masters is the only major title he hasn’t won. As he does that, we will remember how he led here after 18 and 36 and 54 holes in 2011, then came to the 10th tee Sunday — and hit into the cabins along the left side of the fairway and melted down en route to an 80.
Should he contend here this week, he’ll face that spot — and that shot — again.
“It definitely was a character-builder,” McIlroy said.
That’s how Spieth has to see his performance at the 12th hole in 2016. There, he arrived with the lead, trying to win his second Masters in a row. There, he tossed his tee shot in the water, chunked another one into the drink, made a quadruple bogey, lost the lead and never recovered.
Should he be in contention again, Spieth will have that same view, that same challenge Sunday. These players, and all of us, have a memory bank at this place that’s just not as deep at Oakmont or Oak Hill, or even Pebble Beach or Pinehurst.
“To be played at the same place, to play 16 and see Tiger’s chip-in, to see Phil holing bunker shots on 15 for eagle,” Spieth said. “All the putts guys have made on 18 to that Sunday pin, and the amphitheater setup as you come to 18 — it’s a walk that I’ll certainly never forget.”
Why, then, would 2018 be different? Take one over-riding factor.
“The addition of Tiger being healthy and playing well,” Spieth said, “no matter what else happened, was probably going to make it as anticipated as any going back five, six, seven years.”
Woods, the 42-year-old four-time champion, is playing here for the first time in three years. It’s lost on exactly no one, and it changes the tenor of the event. Throw in his past two results — second in Tampa, fifth in Orlando, in contention on the back nine on Sunday both times — and he faces expectations like he did in his prime.
And yet . . .
“There’s so many guys playing well at the same time,” Woods said.
So, then, list them: Mickelson, who broke a five-year drought by winning in Mexico. McIlroy, who won his last start at Bay Hill. Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters champ who has two wins this year. Spieth, who seemed to get untracked by finishing third in Houston. And we haven’t even gotten to the top-ranked player in the world, Dustin Johnson.
“There’s just a lot of guys playing really good golf that create story lines in general,” Spieth said. “And then, when you put it at kind of the biggest stage in our sport, I think that creates that anticipation.”
So the stage is set. And at the Masters, it matters that the stage is the same each year. Familiarity, in this case, breeds fondness. And there’s no fondness for any tournament in the world like there is for the one every April at Augusta National Golf Club.
Barry Svrluga became a sports columnist for The Washington Post in December 2016. He arrived at The Post in 2003 to cover football and basketball at the University of Maryland and has covered the Washington Nationals, the Redskins, the Olympics and golf.
Democracy Dies in Darkness
© 1996-2018 The Washington Post