Open season at the Masters this year
AUGUSTA National's trademark back-nine drama in the final round of the Masters could reach epic heights on Sunday with a field that offers several rising young stars, but no Tiger Woods and no clear favourite.
Rory McIlroy has touted himself as Woods' heir apparent, but both he and defending champion Adam Scott squandered late leads last month to lose. Meanwhile, reigning British Open champion Phil Mickelson and Australian star Jason Day are coming off injuries.
World No. 1 Woods will miss the Masters for the first time, after back surgery.
Mix in a record 24 first-time Masters starters, including recent three-time winners Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed, and one of golf's grandest stages is set for a showdown to decide the green jacket like few seen in recent times.
Leading contenders offered a wide range of choices for how many players they expect were true challengers for the title.
"If the course plays firm and fast conditions, I think you're looking at less than a dozen," Mickelson said. "But if it doesn't, I think you're looking at almost half the field."
There have been 15 first-time Major winners in the past 19 Majors and 19 different winners in the past 21 Majors, with only McIlroy and Mickelson winning twice in that span.
Scott said that as the era dominated by Woods has faded, the world No. 1's last Major title having come in 2008, a wider set of champions has emerged.
"It has been easy to look at who is the guy to beat. I think that scope has kind of broadened now," the Australian said. "There are a lot of guys with the talent and the form that aren't necessarily standing out above others, but on their week, they are going to be tough to beat."
Three players can dethrone Woods from atop the rankings this week. World No. 4 Day, a three-time runner-up in Majors, must win. Swedish world No. 3 Henrik Stenson must finish in a two-way share of second or better and second-ranked Scott needs at least a two-way share of third.
Many of this year's crop of first-timers have said they see no reason why one of them could not duplicate the 1979 feat of Fuzzy Zoeller to win in his first Augusta National start, the only man since the second Masters in 1935 to do so.
"Confident is good," Stenson said. "But then, there's always a chance that there might be one or two surprises around the corner here."
Scott is motivated to win with the top ranking seen as a by-product of success.
"I feel like my game is at a point where if I play well, I have got a chance to win this tournament. And the follow-on from that would be world No. 1."
Reigning US Open champion Justin Rose likes his chances after his win at Merion last June, putting himself with Northern Irishman McIlroy and Spain's Sergio Garcia atop Europe's charge.
"It can be any week for any of us. There are a lot of great players that are due," the Englishman said.
"You can always have the unknowns that can happen, but I would say 15 guys who are pretty strong favourites.
"Rory and Sergio are probably the two Europeans that will have the best chance, along with myself."