The Masters is a tournament not a championship — a limited field event that’s there to be won by the man in form who displays the stomach for battle down the stretch.
Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Danny Willett, Charl Schwartzel, Trevor Immelman, Angel Cabrera, and Zach Johnson were all ranked outside the world’s top 10 when they pulled on that green jacket.
So while it’s tempting to dream of a clash between world No. 1 Justin Rose and No. 3 Rory McIlroy on the back nine on Sunday, recent trends at Augusta National suggest that No. 12 Tiger Woods might be as likely a contender.
When it comes to the weight of history on his shoulders, Woods has a lighter burden than McIlroy, who is making his fifth attempt to complete the career grand slam.
“When I won in ‘66 at Muirfield, it was about winning the Open Championship,” Jack Nicklaus said yesterday.
“The career grand slam was not even a mention.
I doubt if it was even mentioned for a year or two after that, except maybe by Gary Player because he had won it. (Laughs) Gary is wonderful.
“But Rory with the social media and the press, has a little more pressure on him because of that career grand slam and that being talked about so much.
“If it was just about winning the Masters, which is what it should be about, Rory is
playing well. He is confident and he is doing well. So I expect Rory to do well. But there are a lot of other guys playing well too.”
The Golden Bear listed every top player then came to Woods and hinted that he has more than a good feeling about the four-time Masters champion than most.
“Tiger… I have never seen Tiger quite this confident,” he said. “He is not hurting anywhere and I played with him about three weeks ago and he played fantastic. He shot the easiest 64 I have ever seen, no effort, nothing strained. Just about hit every single fairway.
“Brooks Koepka with three majors in last two years, Dustin Johnson who should never lose a golf tournament, Rickie Fowler who is going to win one of these days, Justin Thomas who can win any time he plays, Justin Rose who is no 1 in the world, Jon Rahm, Bryson DeChambeau…. You have got as deep a field as you have ever had and more guys with a chance to win than ever.
When it comes to winning a major in your forties, Nicklaus knows what it takes.
“Putting,” he said, pointing the one question mark hanging over 43-year old Woods this week.
Putting is about nerves and nerve.
"You have to have the nerve to be able to putt as well as nerves and if Tiger has that, he can have a chance to win here for another 10 years.
“It’s a course where you only have about six tough shots on — the tee shot at two which is dangerous, the second shot on 11, tee shot on 12, both shots on 13 and the second shot on 15.
“The rest of the golf course is not very difficult. If you can play those five holes in par or better the rest of the course opens up pretty wide.
If you are playing well and got a lot of confidence and the nerve, there are a lot of guys who can do that. But Tiger... Tiger’s nerve is so darn good.”
Shane Lowry’s recent driving troubles and historic lack of success at Augusta are significant drawbacks for him. But he got his week off to the perfect start last night, making a hole in one at the second in the Par-Three Contest before turning in delight to his wife Wendy and baby daughter Iris, gathering her up in his arms and tossing her into the air in delight. McIlroy does not play the Par-Three these days but remains in game mode at his Augusta base.
But it remains to be seen if the mental hoops he has jumped through over the past 12 months will give him the freedom to get out of his own way and improve on a career-best finish of fourth four years ago and take his place on golf’s Mount Olympus with Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Woods.
He’s spent the past month talking about his desire to separate wanting to win from needing to win. But when asked if that separation would shrink a little bit should he find himself in the mix coming down the stretch, he had no answer.
“No, I haven’t thought about it,” he said. “I guess there’s a lot of bridges to cross until we get to that point.”
Given that he’s finished tied eighth, fourth, tied 10th, tied seventh and tied fifth in his last five Masters, it would be tempting to assume that McIlroy has had chances on the back nine on Sunday.
But the truth is that he’s had the lead just once heading down the 10th and that was in 2011 when he had a four-shot lead heading into the final round but shot 80 and faded to tied 15th.
He’s a far different player now, however, and it appears to be only a matter of time before he pulls all aspects of his game together on a course softened by heavy rain — perfect for a long hitter.
He looks bulletproof too after racking up top 10 finishes in his seven starts this year with his back-nine performance en route to victory in The Players a hugely significant performance.
“I’m not getting ahead of myself,” he insisted on Tuesday.
Not thinking about the tee shot on Thursday or thinking about, you know, what is to come this week, and that’s something I probably will never stop trying to learn or to practice.
"But I’m in a good place with it.”
His work with Brad Faxon, which has as much to do with the mental game as putting, has been key to his recent success, not to mention “meditation, juggling, mind training, you know, doing all the stuff to get yourself in the right place.”
He could become the first player since Sarazen in 1935 to complete the grand slam at Augusta but insists, not all that convincingly, he’s not in any hurry.
“Again, you know, I keep saying this, I would dearly love to win this tournament one day,” the 29-year-old said. “If it doesn’t happen this week, that’s totally fine, I’ll come back next year and have another crack at it. But I’m happy with where everything is — body, mind, game.”