AUGUSTA, Ga. – Given the breadth and depth of would-be champions it’s best to reverse engineer this year’s Masters.
It’s far easier to cherry-pick a dozen or so players who have no chance of slipping tired arms into a green jacket on Sunday than it is to formulate a concise and comprehensive list of those who could.
This is by no means a slight, but you could dismiss the chances for the assorted amateurs in the field – although full-time fireman and U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Matt Parziale’s story is the stuff of legend – as well as most, not all, of the card-carrying AARP members who will tee off on Friday.
By comparison, compiling a list of favorites is an exercise in diminishing returns.
Pick your starting point, whoever and wherever that may be, and let the handwringing begin.
“The addition of Tiger [Woods] being healthy and playing well, no matter what else happened, was probably going to make it as anticipated as any going back five, six, seven years,” Jordan Spieth said. “But then Phil [Mickelson] winning recently, Rory [McIlroy] winning recently, Bubba [Watson] winning recently, Justin [Thomas] playing well, [Dustin Johnson] playing well, I mean there's just a lot of guys playing really good.”
Johnson makes for low-hanging fruit on any lineup of potential favorites. The world No. 1 has finished inside the top 10 in his last two starts at Augusta National and has the firepower to turn the former Fruitland Nursery into a pitch-and-putt, but this isn’t the same DJ who arrived at the year’s first major last season as the preemptive favorite.
Some might say Justin Rose, who has finished runner-up at the Masters twice in the last three years, should hold that status this year, but then the Englishman is somewhat under the radar compared to other players.
Thomas is a two-time winner on the PGA Tour this season and finished runner-up in his last start (WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play); Spieth is always a threat at Augusta National regardless of form; and in his second start, Jon Rahm has the look of a man poised for a breakthrough.
But that’s what makes this year’s edition so compelling. Chalk and the Official World Golf Ranking only tell a small part of the story.
Watson, a two-time Masters champion, has rebounded from his worst year on Tour in 2017, with two victories this season and again looks like a player who was created in a lab to play Augusta National; and Paul Casey ended a victory drought at the Valspar Championship that had stretched nearly a decade and has done everything at Augusta except win the Masters.
And that list brushes by the likes of Alex Noren, who may be Europe’s most valuable player this fall at the Ryder Cup; and Jason Day, who also has a victory on his ’18 dance card and is missing only a win, to go along with his place (2011) and show (2013) to complete the Masters trifecta.
“I think there's a lot of players, a lot of the top quality players, young and old, are playing some of their best golf, and I think that's going to lead to one of the most exciting Masters in years,” figured Phil Mickelson.
Which brings us to the legendary elephant in the room.
For all the promise the 82nd edition holds, all the possibilities that this Sunday will one day be remembered as one of the most unforgettable – to rival Jack Nicklaus’ historic victory in 1986 or Tiger Woods’ dominant performance in 1997 – there is a dream scenario that even a few weeks ago seemed wildly unlikely.
For decades the golf world wished and waited for that day when Woods and Mickelson would somehow find themselves in a head-to-head duel at the Masters.
They came close a few times. In 2009, the twosome teed off on Sunday paired together – the only time the duo played a competitive round together at Augusta National – and put on a show, combining to go 9 under, but were never really in contention.
Three years earlier, Lefty closed with a 67 to claim his second green jacket and Woods tied for fourth, but they were separated by five strokes. Although they’ve combined to win the Masters seven times, the cosmic tumblers have never aligned in just the right way to produce that duel for the ages.
In January it appeared as if the time for that long-awaited bout had passed. Woods had missed the last two Masters because of injury and Mickelson hadn’t finished better than 22nd in his last two starts at Augusta National.
But last month, Mickelson turned back the clock to win the WGC-Mexico Championship and Woods’ return has been nothing short of spectacular, with top-10 finishes in his last two starts. The duo only fueled the fire when they paired together for a practice round on Tuesday, which was their first in an individual event since 1998.
“I texted him a while ago when he was playing at Valspar that it felt like it was a different time continuum because I found myself pulling so hard for him. It was unusual,” Mickelson admitted. “I find that I want him to play well, and I'm excited to see him play so well.”
A Tiger vs. Phil showdown on Sunday is a storyline few could have imagined just a few weeks ago. It’s the type of moment that shows up in a movie script, but rarely on a leaderboard. That it’s one of dozens of dream scenarios this week is why this is the most anticipated Masters in years.
“I don't think there's one clear‑cut favorite. I think there's so many guys playing well at the same time. That's what is making this year's Masters so exciting,” Woods said. “There are guys from the early 20s to Phil at 47 that have all played well. We know we're going to have to play well in order to win, and it's going to be quite a challenge.”
If Woods really wants to be challenged, try coming up with a concise list of potential favorites. Can’t be done.