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.
“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.