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Missing the Masters: These storylines will have to wait ...

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The sprawling oak tree that guards the back of the clubhouse is still there, ready to serve as an unofficial monument at golf’s most famous event. The lawn it shades remains as verdant as ever, even as no footsteps trod across its perfectly manicured grass.

The pain of a postponed Masters was felt as soon as club chairman Fred Ridley made the announcement on March 13, but this week those feelings will be magnified considerably. On a week when Augusta National Golf Club should shine for the world to see, it will instead remain behind a locked gate without a patron in sight.

There remains hope that the Masters will be contested this year, as it has been re-slated for November 12-15. But in the interim, and especially this week, golf fans more closely resemble the residents of Whoville just after the Grinch rolled through town: robbed of every accoutrement and hoping to restore any sense of normalcy.

So to kick off a week that would have, under other circumstances, filled our notebooks to the brim with engaging topics and captivating angles, we’re left to reminisce about the ones that might have been. Here’s a look at some of the top storylines that could have highlighted the 84th Masters, some of which might still come to pass once it eventually takes place.

The defending champ returns amid questions

Even with no play, there has been a lot of reminiscing of Tiger Woods’ return to glory last year. But, it would have been nice to have had a chance to question the reigning champ this week about his health and readiness – and to see how the last few weeks would have played out.

Coronavirus was a footnote in the news cycle the last time that Woods played a competitive round, on Feb. 16. And while the pandemic has shifted our focus since, there’s no denying that Woods was on his way to a less-than-robust preparation for his green jacket defense. Details remain sparse, but it was clear that Woods’ back was an issue, one that led him to skip a trio of high-profile events including The Players.

Would Tiger have returned at the WGC-Dell Match Play or added an unexpected start? Would an Augusta fondness spark a return to form? Was the rest all precautionary or something more serious? Those questions, among others, will remain unanswered for now.

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McIlroy renews his Grand Slam quest as world No. 1

It’s been five years since McIlroy last drove down Magnolia Lane as the top-ranked player in the world in search of the final leg of the career Grand Slam. That year he trailed Jordan Spieth by 12 shots heading into the weekend before finishing fourth.

The speculation that he might have improved considerably on that result would’ve been enormous this week. McIlroy hadn’t won yet in 2020, but his game was clearly trending toward a peak: four starts with no finish worse than T-5, the sort of consistency that culminated with his Players win last year.

The ghosts of Augusta National still haunt McIlroy from his 2011 collapse, and they surely would have nipped at his heels across 72 holes. But it would have been a privilege to watch the world’s best, playing near his best, attempt once again to slay the lone remaining dragon in his way and join some elite company.

Spieth, Mickelson search for lightning in a bottle

Prior to the stoppage, the new year hadn’t been kind to either former champion. Spieth’s prolonged struggles are well-documented, and any occasional signs of progress he flashed were usually undone in short order. He had cracked the top 50 just once in five starts.

It was more feast or famine for Mickelson, who finished third in both Saudi Arabia and Pebble Beach but missed the cut in each of his other four starts this year. The three-time jacket winner has been searching rather fruitlessly for months, and questions lingered over whether he could salvage his plummeting world ranking in time to qualify for the U.S. Open.

But Augusta National remains an inviting destination for those who learn how to unlock its secrets. Spieth and Mickelson have both turned on a dime in recent years once arriving in the Champions Locker Room, turning minimal form into a shot at contention. Both men are imbued with confidence simply by walking on the grounds, a factor that could have become an equalizer as they sought to keep pace with peers who were boasting stronger week-to-week credentials. Admit it – either one (or both) making a late Sunday charge wouldn’t have been that surprising.

PHOTOS: An empty Augusta during pandemic

Here are some images of a closed Augusta National and empty Augusta, Georgia, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Im leads the latest crop of first-timers

If you’re a Masters fan, you’re undoubtedly aware of the stat: discounting the very first Masters in 1934, the only player to win in his first trip down Magnolia Lane is Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. It’s hard enough to tame the imperceptible nuances and slick greens at Augusta National, but nearly impossible to do it on your first try.

But inevitably, at least one first-timer makes a bit of a run at bucking the trend. Spieth nearly did so in his debut, finishing second in 2014, and Im might have been the best candidate to pull it off this week.

Given his penchant for playing nearly every possible event, Im might be going through more competitive withdrawal than many of his peers at the moment. But he earned his first Masters invite by making last year’s Tour Championship, and he snagged his first win at the Honda Classic just before the sport hit the pause button.

Im would have been joined by a number of other decorated Masters rookies, including Abraham Ancer, Matthew Wolff and Cameron Champ. Both Max Homa and Sebastian Munoz were racking up notable results in the spring, while Collin Morikawa and Scottie Scheffler were both on the cusp of qualifying for the first time.

There would have been a number of rookie storylines to follow, but Im might have been the pick of the bunch. With impeccable ball-striking, an Ironman work ethic and a recent victory to his credit, contending deep into the weekend of his first Masters would have been well within his reach.

Bernhard Langer turns back the clock with a random 68

This is a possibility that feels more like an inevitability. The Masters almost always treats us to a graying former champion who dazzles early in the week, sparking wistful remembrances of the magical week that produced their green jacket. Last year, Sandy Lyle opened with 73 and nearly made the cut, while Fred Couples turned this trend into something of a cottage industry in the mid-2000s.

But the likely candidate this time around would’ve been the ageless Langer, who at 62 years young is still dusting fields on the PGA Tour Champions. On the anniversary of his first Masters win in 1985, Langer might have turned back the clock during one of the early rounds. Or perhaps he would have squeezed past the cut line only to make an early Saturday move while patrons were still filing in.

Either way, the chances were strong that a man who has more Masters top-25s than missed cuts since 2013 would have found a way to get his name once again featured prominently on the yawning white scoreboards that line the course, eliciting another round of “How does he do it?” head shakes.

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The scientist seeks a major top-10

Bryson DeChambeau turned heads with his unorthodox offseason program of weight gain and muscle build, but the jokes and jeers started to die down once DeChambeau got back to competing. The new-look physique was leading to lower scores, including a near-miss at the WGC-Mexico Championship. With three straight top-5 finishes through Bay Hill, he was heating up at just the right time.

While DeChambeau has won five times on Tour and made a pair of U.S. team events, though, the major stage has eluded him to date. After finishing T-15 at the 2016 U.S. Open in his first major as a pro, he hasn’t matched that result in 11 subsequent starts. His best Masters result came in 2016, when he was still an amateur and tied for 21st.

Would the new-look DeChambeau attempt to overpower Amen Corner? Would his analytical approach thrive on a venue with endless information to compute? Would his pace-of-play issues crop up again, this time with a green jacket hanging in the balance? They’re all appetizing questions to ponder, and they’re all put on hold for the time being.

Stars out for revenge on Golden Bell

The 12th hole is among the most famous par-3s in the world, and it was an indisputable turning point during last year’s final round. Brooks Koepka, Francesco Molinari, Tony Finau and Ian Poulter all rinsed their tee shots among the final two groups, while Tiger Woods made a routine par that spurred him to victory.

How field unraveled last year at Augusta’s 12th

The par-3 12th at Augusta National always plays a pivotal role in determining the Masters champion. But last year it took center stage.

That watery quartet has had 12 months to lick their wounds, with some faring better than others. Koepka won another major the next month, while Molinari hasn’t been the same since. But they all would have been back for a little revenge on the shortest hole at Augusta National, ready to take that short walk from the 11th green to the 12th tee with equal parts anticipation and trepidation.

Lee Westwood gets one more shot at major glory

No one has played in more majors without winning one than Westwood, who will turn 47 later this month. While he qualified for his first Masters since 2017 with his T-4 finish at Royal Portrush, that performance sparked a renaissance that has seen Westwood return to the top 50 in the world thanks in large part to a win earlier this year in Abu Dhabi.

From 2010-16 Westwood racked up five top-10s at Augusta National, finishing second in both 2010 and 2016. He has had more heartbreak in majors than many peers might collect over their entire playing career, and years ago he aged from a prime “best player without a major” candidate to one whose decorated credentials would seemingly carry a permanent void.

But there might be a little bit of magic left for the Englishman, who appears comfortable both on and off the course amid his latest resurgence. A wily veteran with plenty of Masters experience and nothing to lose, captivating the patrons and refusing to back down long after the whims of probability would have expected him to falter. It’s the sort of tale that’s often played out among those fabled pines, and Westwood might have become the latest subject.

But for now, like so many other appetizing storylines we’d all love to write and read about, it’ll have to wait.