Monday Scramble: Major excitement for Masters

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So ... anything going on this week?

Nah, only the Super Bowl of Golf. Getting you ready for the Masters with this major edition of the Monday Scramble: 

When the Big Three strike the ceremonial first tee shot Thursday, it'll have been 242 days since Rory McIlroy won in near darkness at Valhalla ... not that we’ve been counting or anything. The gap between majors always sends the hype machine into overdrive heading into the Masters, and that’s before you factor in Tiger’s return and Rory’s run at history and the consistently inspiring play of Jordan Spieth and Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson.

Sure, there’s always a chance that the back nine at Augusta will be a dud – last year’s finale, you may recall, was rather sleepy during the final hour – but it feels like we’re in store for an all-timer here. There are too many great players playing too well for a final-round flameout.

Gone are the days when, realistically, only a handful of players can win at Augusta. The list today is 30, maybe even 35 players deep. And that benefits the golf fan. 

When the first round gets underway, we’ll be nearly eight months removed from the last day at the PGA, when seemingly every top-10 player in the world was in the mix during the most exciting day of golf in 2014. We’re fully expecting the big boys to pick up where they left off. 

1. In case you're just waking up from a long winter's nap and making the Masters your first viewing start of the season, hey, welcome! Here are one man's top-five storylines heading into this week:

  1. Tiger's return
  2. Rory's run at history
  3. The emergence of Spieth
  4. Bubba ball
  5. Who's ready to take the next step?

2. Tiger’s return. Some of you are dealing with Tiger fatigue. Yes, thank you, I received your angry emails. Saw your nasty tweets, too. Complain all you want, but there’s no denying that Woods' opener Thursday will be the most highly anticipated round since he parachuted into Augusta in 2010 following the sex scandal. For two days, at least, he is the main story, 1A. 

This Masters sets up as arguably the most important tournament of Tiger’s career. He absolutely has to show progress – a made cut, no skulled chips, something – to convince not only himself but also the general sports public that he’s over the unwatchable play of the past 15 months. 

Augusta National exposes a player’s weakness better than any course on the planet, and there is no player in the field more fragile than Woods. He can’t afford another setback, not when he turns 40 this year, not after two months of hard work, not with his career in peril, not when the top players are so clearly better. All credit to Woods for putting his vulnerable game on display, but a setback at this point would be devastating. 

3. Rory’s run at history. The clear No. 1 player in the world takes a shot at (A) capturing his first green jacket, (B) completing the career Grand Slam, and (C) winning the third leg of the Tiger Slam. It’s all right there in front of Rory, a career achievement he’s embraced since he kissed the claret jug July 20, and he’s never been one to shy away from the big moment. For a global superstar at the peak of his powers, it doesn’t get much bigger than this. 

4. The emergence of Spieth. At this time last year, the then-20-year-old led by two with 11 to play. He wasn’t ready to win then (bogeying Nos. 8, 9 and 12 and failing to birdie each of the back-nine par 5s), nor was he ready at The Players a month later. 

But the baby-faced hotshot who stumbled down the stretch at Augusta bears little resemblance to the self-assured stud who returns to Georgia as the No. 4 player in the world. There is no hotter player on the planet: In his last 11 worldwide starts, he has three wins and four other top-5 finishes. In his last three starts on the PGA Tour, he has gone 1-2-2, the latest a playoff loss Sunday in Houston. He’s longer off the tee, his short game is otherworldly good (so long as a camera doesn’t go off in his downswing) and he’s a top-5 putter. The kid is going to win a Masters, and there’s a good chance it’ll happen this week. 

5. Bubba ball. Only three players in Masters history have repeated as champion, but Watson is the clear-cut favorite this year – and, incredibly, he’s flying under the radar. That’s to be expected with all of the hype surrounding Tiger and Rory, but Watson is going to challenge for his third green jacket in four years.

He has played only four events this calendar year, but he has a pair of top-threes and no finish worse than 14th. Really, he’s been automatic since September, as the player self-diagnosed with ADD has gone about his business with a newfound serenity. His imagination and Augusta's undulating terrain is a match in green-jacketed heaven. Why can’t he crack the Augusta code at least one more time? 

6. Who’s ready to take the next step? It’s tempting to predict major victories for all of the extravagantly talented players on Tour, but the fact is there are only four Big Ones a year and they’re hard to win. That’s why proven winners like Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Henrik Stenson and Jimmy Walker arrived on property this week without a major title to their name. From that group listed, Day and Walker are the most likely to break through this week. Their big, brawny game is a perfect fit for Augusta’s unique challenges, which helps explain why the Australian has a pair of top-threes at Augusta, while Walker top-10'd in his first visit in ’14.

That's not a knock on the other two players. But it's clear that for all of his awe-inspiring gifts, Johnson has yet to demonstrate the kind of sound decision-making at Augusta that has transformed Bubba from a brainless basher to an artist with a pink driver. Stenson, meanwhile, is arguably the best ball-striker in the game, but his final round at Bay Hill was a reminder that he’s still a work in progress on the greens. Augusta can (and will) expose that. 

7. Don’t look now, but J.B. Holmes was thisclose to making himself a legitimate Player of the Year candidate. Heck, he still might be. The playoff loss at Torrey. The big lead blown at Doral. And now the stout Sunday 64 and playoff win in H-Town? This is a career year for Holmes, and it’s only April 6. In 11 starts this season, he’s already posted a career high in earnings ($2.94M) and matched a career best in top-10s (four).

8. It’s amazing that Holmes, a four-time PGA Tour winner, has made only one trip to Augusta, back in 2008 (T-25). It’s difficult to forecast how he’ll play this week, but his major history leaves much to be desired – in 18 career appearances, his best finish is 14th

He sure didn’t look like it when he pummeled three big drives on the difficult 18th at the Golf Club of Houston, but Holmes is 170th (!) in driving accuracy this season. That wildness off the tee could put him in some awkward positions at Augusta, especially with his predominant left-to-right ball flight. Throw in the fact that he’s outside the top 170 in putting from inside 8 feet, and we’ll be looking for another sleeper in our Masters pool, thank you very much.

9. Quite an eventful Sunday for Spieth: He had a one-shot lead, he fell off the pace, he rallied with a pair of back-nine birdies and he made a sick up-and-down to join the playoff. Bowing out early was a bummer, but Spieth can take solace in the fact that since 1960, only two men have won the Masters after winning the previous week. 

There’s also this: Losing the way he did – chunking a bunker shot after he claimed a cellphone clicked during his downswing – was better than if, say, his ball rolled into the water on his tee shot. Then he’d have felt like he kicked away the tournament, rather than getting jobbed by a clueless fan. Big difference, at least psychologically. 

10. An ESPN.com survey of touring professionals found that 62 percent still believe that Tiger will win a 15th major championship. Maybe the Tour really does have a drug-testing problem. 

11. The Tour’s most disliked players – sorry, the official question is: _____ is in a fight in the parking lot. You’re not helping him. – are, in order, Bubba Watson, Patrick Reed, Rory Sabbatini and Robert Allenby. Good thing there aren't too many physical altercations.  

12. Looking at this Getty photo, it's pretty clear that Brittany Lincicome’s fiancée, long-driving Dewald Gouws, has practiced his jump into Poppie’s Pond: 

13. Whose break was worse: Spieth hearing a cellphone click, or Stacy Lewis finding a divot with her layup shot on the third playoff hole at the ANA Inspiration? That’s not to suggest that Spieth would have gotten his shot up-and-down and then prevailed in a playoff, or that Lewis would have stuffed that wedge shot to kick-in range and won, but both were incredibly unlucky. No one wants to see an anticlimactic finish after hours of stirring play. And no one wants to seen an important outcome determined by forces outside a player's control.

14. The rest of the LPGA hasn’t had much success stopping Lydia Ko, but it’s clear that Mission Hills has her number. The world No. 1 stumbled to a T-51 finish at the year’s first major – the third-worst showing of her young career. It also follows pedestrian finishes there of T-25 and T-29 in 2013 and ’14, respectively. 

The casual sports fan already has trouble embracing the teen phenom, and this result was a missed opportunity for a tour that desperately needs a dominant world No. 1 to (if only occasionally) crack the mainstream. Fair or not, Ko needs to win at least one major this year to capitalize on all of the momentum from the past few months.  

15. Seriously, what are the chances that Ko would match Annika’s LPGA record of 29 sub-par rounds, then close out the ANA with three consecutive over-par scores? She hadn't done that since June. 

Lexi Thompson essentially posed topless for the upcoming Golf Digest fitness issue. The only thing she’s wearing is something resembling a gym towel and a golf glove, which is the lone reminder that this is indeed a golf magazine.

Not surprisingly, opinion on the cover was divided. Some thought it was great, another dose of #GirlPower. Others viewed the cover as a blatant exploitation of the female body. And a few cried that there was a double standard at work, because Rory posed shirtless on the cover of the same magazine last month.

Difference is, that cover conveyed power and strength, with his chiseled abs, arms and shoulders the prototype of a modern pro. Sorry, but nothing about a female’s semi-exposed breasts connote those same ideals.

Inside, Michelle Wie, Stacy Lewis, Cheyenne Woods and Thompson were photographed working out in appropriate gym apparel. Strange that those shots weren’t deemed worthy for the cover. Anything to sell magazines ... 

This week's award winners ... 

Most Likely to Dance-Off: Brittany Lincicome and Johnson Wagner. Their reactions on the 72nd hole Sunday were pure, unadulterated joy – and totally awesome. 

Wise Beyond His Years: Jordan Spieth, talking about his hot streak and proving yet again that there's no way he's 21: “Honestly, ideally, I don’t look at this like a run. I look at this as this is the way I should be playing. If I look at it as a run, it means the normal me is something lesser than I am right now. I can’t think of myself that way.” 

Not Ready for the NFL Combine: Patrick Reed, who made an ace in Houston and then couldn't chase down his bag-toting caddie in a race. Hey, just blame it on the bad wheel!

Tweet of the Week: Nike has already released its scripting for Tiger's Masters outfits. Here's another idea:

Most Likely to Rinse a Putter in Poppie's Pond: Sei Young Kim, the third-round leader at the ANA who three-putted SEVEN times during the tournament and still only finished two shots out a playoff.

Give These Folks a Raise: This Nike ad featuring Tiger and Rory will give you goosebumps. At least it should, if you’re a golf fan. 

Actually, an opening 75 is a pretty good guess. I’m expecting some scrappy play but Woods should be able to keep his score from going completely off the rails with a few par-5 birdies. And keep in mind a first-round 75 wouldn’t torpedo his chances of playing the weekend. The past two years the 36-hole cut fell at 5-over 149. In 2012, it was 150.

It’s all going to come down to his first few missed greens. Walking up to his shot, he’s going to wonder, the patrons at Augusta are going to wonder and the viewers at home are going to wonder: Is he about to bungle ANOTHER one? Until Tiger demonstrates that he can consistently handle those shots – especially off those extra tight lies – his short-game woes will follow him around that opening day, and beyond. 

It certainly wouldn’t hurt, but is it essential that he bags a major this year? No way. Spieth has already established himself as a top-5 player, not just for this year, but also for the next, oh, decade and a half. His go-for-broke style is refreshing, and he has separated himself from the other would-be stars – i.e. Rickie – by actually winning tournaments. His game doesn’t have any weaknesses, which is why it’d be a surprise if he didn’t contend in every major. Look for him at Augusta and Chambers Bay (where he missed the cut in the 2010 U.S. Am). 

Can only pick two? Jordan Spieth vs. Patrick Reed is the obvious choice. Former Ryder Cup partners, they have established the foundation for a loooong rivalry with their taut playoff in Tampa. That’d be so fun to watch – two ultra-competitive dudes with world-class short games on the biggest stage in golf. 

Could throw Rickie in that group, but his game looks anything but major-ready. Would put Brooks Koepka in that mix, but his rib injury looks like it’ll hamper his Masters debut. Might want Hideki Matsuyama in that spot, but he lacks the star power of the others. Honestly, just getting a handful of these guys in contention would be a bonus.