AUGUSTA, Ga. – One after another, some of the world's best players and favorites to win the Masters trudged up the hill on the opening hole to start their practice rounds.
Phil Mickelson. Rory McIlroy. Adam Scott.
It was typical of any Tuesday at Augusta National, except for the scoreboard to the right of where they were walking. The board has the names of all 97 players in the field, with blank boxes to put their scores when the tournament begins. On the far right side of the board is a list of this year's noncompeting invitees.
Tommy Aaron. Doug Ford. Tiger Woods.
''It's a weird feeling not having him here, isn't it?'' said Phil Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion and the chief foil for Woods over the years. ''He's been such a mainstay in professional golf and in the majors. It's awkward to not have him here. I hope he gets back soon. I hope he's back for the other majors. As much as I want to win - and I know how great he is and tough to beat – it makes it special when he's in the field and you're able to win.''
Woods hasn't been the same all year, even before back surgery last week. He is missing the Masters for the first time. His presence looms as large as some of the Georgia pines lining the fairways, though it will be forgotten when the opening shot is in the air Thursday, and a green jacket is awarded Sunday.
Even so, Woods brings a buzz to any tournament, even at Augusta National.
And this year, his absence has brought talk of the most wide-open Masters in nearly 20 years. Las Vegas has installed Scott and McIlroy as the betting favorites at 10-1, followed by Mickelson, Jason Day and Matt Kuchar at 12-1.
McIlroy had his own version of a betting sheet on the table where he sat during his interview – the tee times for the opening two rounds. Told that 97 players were in the field, the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland figured 70 had a chance to win.
''There's a few past champions that play that might not be able to compete. There might be a few first-timers or a few amateurs that won't compete,'' McIlroy said. ''But then you've got the rest. I'm just looking down the list here. Stewart Cink. Tim Clark. Ian Woosnam - no.''
The room filled with laughter as McIlroy smiled and said, ''Sorry, Woosie,'' referring to the 56-year-old former champion.
''You've got a lot of guys that can win, a lot of guys that have won PGA Tour events,'' McIlroy said. ''OK, we're playing at Augusta. Because it's the Masters and because it's so big and so hyped up or whatever you want to say, you ought to remember that you're still playing against the same guys you play with week in and week out.
''I've beaten them before,'' he said. ''They've beaten me before.''
The PGA Tour is 21 tournaments into the season, and only one player (Zach Johnson) won while he was in the top 10 in the world. McIlroy and Scott each had comfortable leads going into the final round and lost to players outside the top 100.
''I think in the past, certainly that's been easy to go to events and look at a guy who is the guy to beat,'' Scott said, not naming Woods because he didn't need to. ''I think that scope has kind of broadened now. There's a lot of guys with the talent and the form that aren't necessarily standing out above the others. But on their week, they're going to be tough to beat.
''I'd like to think my name is one of those guys,'' Scott said. ''And I feel like I'm going to be one of the guys who has got a chance if I play well this week.''
Scott had one more occasion to wear his green jacket Tuesday night as host of the Champions Dinner. Then, he sets out in a bid to join Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Woods as the only players to win back-to-back Masters.
For years, the Masters was seen as having the smallest group of contenders, and not just because it had the smallest field of the four majors. Augusta National is a puzzle that can take years to figure out. The roars that reverberate through the trees and from deep in Amen Corner on Sunday can be unsettling.
Scott won two years after he was a runner-up. Jason Day has completed two Masters and has yet to finish worse than third. As for Mickelson? There's no telling what he might accomplish next. Even though he has withdrawn from two tournaments with different injuries this year, Augusta invigorates the 43-year-old Mickelson.
All of them would love to be near the top of the leaderboard Sunday afternoon. By then, no one will be thinking about anything except a green jacket.
''No matter who is in contention or who is going to win this week, the Masters always provides a great finish,'' McIlroy said. ''Regardless of who is there.''