Many names, many favorites at wide-open Masters

By Joe PosnanskiApril 6, 2016, 6:57 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Welcome to the first post-Tiger major championship, where a traffic jam of young stars line up to become the dominant player in the world. It feels a bit like the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889.

Probably we should start by saying: Tiger Woods could still come back and play great golf. It’s possible. Some people are even betting on it. Jack Nicklaus says he is all but certain that Woods will still “have his 1986,” referring to his own magical victory at Augusta when he was 46 years old. Woods is still only 40 and, though he has set no timetable for his return, there is time yet.

Still, there is most definitely a post-Tiger feel to this year’s Masters. It isn’t just that Woods is not here – missing his second Masters in three years – it is that nobody is really talking about him except when asked.

“We all miss him and want him back.” Phil Mickelson said politely when asked directly if it was strange to play the Masters without Woods, though first he said this:

“Well, it’s not like we shared a house together.”

Woods is out of the picture, at least for now. He has not won a major championship in almost eight years, and in the last two years he has missed three majors and missed the cut in three more. For so long it felt like the golf world was in pause while waiting for Woods to get things in motion again. Guys like Rory McIlroy flashed moments of brilliance. Jordan Spieth had himself a year for the ages. Jason Day overcame his demons and became the No. 1 player in the world. None of it felt quite bona fide though, not with Tiger Woods in limbo.

“Just wait,” everyone seemed to be thinking, “until Tiger comes back.”

Now, though, nobody knows when – or even if – Tiger will come back. And the golf world is in play. The rush begins at Augusta with the most wide-open field in memory. It’s so wide open, there’s no clear-cut favorite even in Las Vegas.

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“Isn’t Jason the favorite?” Spieth asks. “So nice. He can be the favorite.”

Day probably should be the favorite with the way he has been playing since breaking through and winning the PGA Championship. He moved up to No. 2 in the world when he held off the field and won the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month. He then returned to No. 1 when he won the Match Play a week later.

“His trajectory is higher than an anybody else’s in golf,” Nicklaus says. “He has a beautiful golf swing.”

Day created a bit of early buzz at Augusta when he admitted that he strongly considered quitting golf before he played in his first Masters in 2011. While the statement created more than a little bit of skepticism (“You believe that?” Nicklaus asked), it does speak to the extreme emotions that have marked Day’s career.

He did not grow up in the comfortable and family-supported way of his rivals Spieth and McIlroy. He has talked about how his father, in an alcoholic rage, beat him mercilessly after he’d played a poor round. Alvin Day died when Jason was just 11. Day came on tour with extraordinary talent (he finished second at his first Masters and then finished second at his first U.S. Open) but he couldn’t quite break through until late last year.

He admits now that the pressure did affect him, especially here at Augusta, the golf tournament he has always dreamed of winning.

“Everybody would keep asking me, you know, ‘When are you going to win it? And how are you going to win it?' And all that stuff,” Day says. “I guess I thought about it and just said, ‘OK, I’ve got to force it this year.' And that’s when I started missing stuff and making mental errors. I kind of shot myself tournaments.”

Day promises to try and put less pressure on himself.

Spieth, meanwhile, wants to put more pressure on himself this year because, well, he responds to that pressure. He loves it. Spieth came into last year’s Masters feeling confident, even though he was just 21 years old and few gave him a chance. Spieth had finished second in 2014 (along the way becoming the youngest third round leader in Masters history).

“I knew I was in form,” he says, “and I had that close call in 2014. So it was all kind of set up for me to at least contend.”

He more than contended. Spieth shot 64 on the first day and then ran away with the Masters. He set all sorts of records in the process. He had the lowest 36-hole (14 under) and 54-hole scores (16 under) in Masters history and tied Tiger Woods for the lowest score (18 under) at the end. He made the most birdies for one Masters with 26. He became the first to ever reach 19 under at Augusta. He was also the first since Ray Floyd 40 years ago to lead by himself wire-to-wire.

“I would say it’s pretty similar to last year,” Spieth says. “Sure, I’m putting pressure on myself to contend this year, just like last year. And I feel like I’m in form. But it’s also going to be a lot of fun walking these fairways, reliving those memories with the crowds and the roars and the echoes.”

Then there’s Rory McIlroy, who in a weird way has become something of an afterthought. McIlroy is the most accomplished of this generation having won four major championships and been No. 1 in the world for 95 weeks. He comes to Augusta needing only a green jacket to become the sixth player (Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tiger Woods) to win the career Grand Slam.

But even he senses that Day and Spieth, with their remarkable runs of late, have threatened to pull away. McIlroy is No. 3 in the world by a fairly substantial amount.

“I’d be lying if I said those guys’ success doesn’t motivate me,” he says. “Of course it does. What Jordan did last year, the U.S. Open and the whole way through the summer ... what Jason did during the summer and this year ... yeah, I don’t want to be left behind. I want to be part of that conversation. I’m clinging on at the moment. A few wins will change that.”

Actually just one win, right here in Augusta, would change that.

Rickie Fowler is another young golfer trying to break through here. He has spoken openly about needing a victory at a major championship in order to be in the conversation with Day, Spieth and McIlroy. Two years ago, he finished top five in all four major championships but didn’t win any of them. Then last year, he had his biggest victory at The Players Championship and it sparked him into winning four times around the world.

“I feel like the perfect storm – combine 2014 and 2015 together – equals winning a major,” he says. “That’s the way I look at it.”

There are other young guys, but then you look at the 30-somethings. Dustin Johnson is 31 and, as everyone knows, can overpower any golf course including Augusta (“He’s definitely not going to end his career without (a major),” Fowler says).

Adam Scott plays some of the best golf of his life – especially with the putter – and at 35 he can be poised to become the dominant force in golf.

Justin Rose is 35 and has a similar chance.

Bubba Watson is 37 but seems ageless at Augusta, where he has won twice with his miraculous and sweeping shots.

And then there’s Phil Mickelson who is almost 46, but age doesn’t seem to matter much when he comes to Augusta. He tied for second a year ago and says, coming into this one, he is so confident in his game that he really isn’t working on anything in particular.

“This year I feel a little bit more relaxed because, like I said, I’m not really trying to find anything,” he says. “It’s a lot more stress free golf because I’m driving the ball in play and now we come to the Masters where the corridors are much wider.”

There are other interesting players – Henrik Stenson looking to break through and win his first major, the ambitious Patrick Reed trying to insert himself into this post-Tiger world of golf and so on – and, yes, this year’s Masters is unquestionably different. For so many years, all eyes were on one guy.

But Tiger Woods is, for the moment, gone. And so many of the players he inspired, motivated and galvanized – along with many he defeated – finally seem ready to take his place.

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Suspended Hensby offers details on missed drug test

By Will GrayDecember 12, 2017, 11:30 pm

One day after receiving a one-year suspension from the PGA Tour for failing to provide a sample for a drug test, Mark Hensby offered details on the events that led to his missed test in October.

Hensby, 46, released a statement explaining that the test in question came after the opening round of the Sanderson Farms Championship, where the Aussie opened with a 78. Frustrated about his play, Hensby said he was prepared to give a blood sample but was then informed that the test would be urine, not blood.

"I had just urinated on the eighth hole, my 17th hole that day, and knew that I was probably unable to complete the urine test for at least a couple more hours," Hensby said. "I told this gentleman that I would complete the test in the morning prior to my early morning tee time. Another gentleman nearby told me that 'they have no authority to require me to stay.' Thus, I left."

Hensby explained that he subsequently received multiple calls and texts from PGA Tour officials inquiring as to why he left without providing a sample and requesting that he return to the course.

"I showed poor judgment in not responding," said Hensby, who was subsequently disqualified from the tournament.

Hensby won the 2004 John Deere Classic, but he has missed six cuts in seven PGA Tour starts over the last two years. He will not be eligible to return to the Tour until Oct. 26, 2018.

"Again, I made a terrible decision to not stay around that evening to take the urine test," Hensby said. "Obviously in hindsight I should have been more patient, more rational and taken the test. Call me stupid, but don't call me a cheater. I love the game. I love the integrity that it represents, and I would never compromise the values and qualities that the game deserves."

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Day's wife shares emotional story of miscarriage

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 12, 2017, 4:12 pm

Jason Day’s wife revealed on social media that the couple had a miscarriage last month.

Ellie Day, who announced her pregnancy on Nov. 4, posted an emotional note on Instagram that she lost the baby on Thanksgiving.

“I found out the baby had no heartbeat anymore. I was devastated,” she wrote. “I snuck out the back door of my doctor, a hot, sobbing, mascara-covered mess. Two and a half weeks went by witih me battling my heart and brain about what was happening in my body, wondering why this wouldn’t just be over.”

The Days, who have two children, Dash and Lucy, decided to go public to help others who have suffered similar heartbreak.

“I hope you know you aren’t alone and I hope you feel God wrap his arms around you when you feel the depths of sorrow and loss,” she wrote.  

Newsmaker of the Year: No. 5, Sergio Garcia

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 12, 2017, 1:00 pm

This was the year it finally happened for Sergio Garcia.

The one-time teen phenom, known for years as “El Nino,” entered the Masters as he had dozens of majors beforehand – shouldered with the burden of being the best player without a major.

Garcia was 0-for-72 driving down Magnolia Lane in April, but after a thrilling final round and sudden-death victory over Justin Rose, the Spaniard at long last captured his elusive first major title.

The expectation for years was that Garcia might land his white whale on a British links course, or perhaps at a U.S. Open where his elite ball-striking might shine. Instead it was on the storied back nine at Augusta National that he came alive, chasing down Rose thanks in part to a memorable approach on No. 15 that hit the pin and led to an eagle.

Full list of 2017 Newsmakers of the Year

A green jacket was only the start of a transformative year for Garcia, 37, who heaped credit for his win on his then-fiancee, Angela Akins. The two were married in July, and months later the couple announced that they were expecting their first child to arrive just ahead of Garcia’s return to Augusta, where he'll host his first champions’ dinner.

And while players often cling to the notion that a major win won’t intrinsically change them, there was a noticeable difference in Garcia over the summer months. The weight of expectation, conscious or otherwise, seemed to lift almost instantly. Like other recent Masters champs, he took the green jacket on a worldwide tour, with stops at Wimbledon and a soccer match between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

The player who burst onto the scene as a baby-faced upstart is now a grizzled veteran with nearly two decades of pro golf behind him. While the changes this year occurred both on and off the course, 2017 will always be remembered as the year when Garcia finally, improbably, earned the title of major champion.

Masters victory

Article: Garcia defeats Rose to win Masters playoff

Article: Finally at peace: Garcia makes major breakthrough

Article: Garcia redeems career, creates new narrative

Video: See the putt that made Sergio a major champ

Green jacket tour

Article: Take a look at Sergio's crazy, hectic media tour

Article: Garcia with fiancée, green jacket at Wimbledon

Article: Watch: Garcia kicks off El Clasico in green jacket

Man of the people

Article: SERGIO! Garcia finally gets patrons on his side

Article: Fan finally caddies for Sergio after asking 206 times

Article: Sergio donates money for Texas flood relief

Article: Connelly, Garcia paired years after photo together

Ace at 17th at Sawgrass

Growing family

Article: Sergio, Angela get married; Kenny G plays reception

Article: Garcia, wife expecting first child in March 2018

Departure from TaylorMade

Article: Masters champ Garcia splits with TaylorMade

Squashed beef with Paddy

Article: Harrington: Garcia was a 'sore loser'

Article: Sergio, Padraig had 'great talk,' are 'fine'

Victory at Valderrama

Article: Garcia gets first win since Masters at Valderrama

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Newsmakers of the Year: Top 10 in 2017

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 12, 2017, 12:30 pm