By Ron Patey–
(CBS Local) Top-ranked Rory McIlroy arrives at Augusta National Golf Club on the cusp of nailing down his career Grand Slam. He goes out as the odds-on favorite to win in his seventh Masters appearance, looking to top his best Masters performance from last year — a tie for eighth. While McIlroy enters the year’s first major playing well in his last two starts — a tie for ninth at the WGC-Cadillac and a tie for 11th in the Arnold Palmer Invitational — there’s a feeling among observers that something small has been missing from McIlroy’s game. But those same pundits figure he’s close to again becoming his dominant self this week.
Jordan Spieth comes in firing on all cylinders following two amazing efforts in his home state of Texas. His back-to-back second-place finishes in the Valero Texas Open two weeks ago and the Shell Houston Open last week came after a three-hole playoff triumph over Patrick Reed in Tampa at the Valspar Championship. There’s no doubt that he’s bringing his A-game as a top contender.
Two-time champion (2012, 2014) Bubba Watson shoots for the green jacket hat-trick with fresh memories of knowing what it takes to win at Augusta. Throw in that Watson is cucumber cool when it’s time to pull off an out-of-this-world highlight-reel shot, and it’s short money that the long-hitting lefty finds a way to become a major factor on Sunday.
Yes, Tiger Woods is in the field and the anticipation will be intense. The scrutiny can be counted on to reach a searing flashpoint when the four-time champion inevitably stands over his first pitch or chip shot. Woods has a mountain the size of Everest to climb. However, if he shows well on the back of a brutal performance at the Hero World Challenge, a missed cut at the Waste Management Phoenix Open and the disaster at the Farmers Insurance Open, then this weekend has the potential to go down as one of the comeback stories for the ages.
Augusta National Golf Club
Par 72, 7,435 yards
It’s no secret that players better bring their imaginations to Augusta. The digital and old-school film libraries documenting the tournament are jam packed with images of game-changing shots, such as the sweeping hook Watson hit from pine straw in 2012 to within 10 feet on the second playoff hole against South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen. Watson two-putted from there to seal the victory. Then there’s the approach Phil Mickelson hit at the 13th hole in 2010. Mickelson smoked his second-shot iron off pine needles and from between two trees. The ball soared more than 200 yards and barely over Rae’s Creek onto the green at the par 5. He missed the eagle attempt, but the birdie propelled him to his third Masters triumph.
Favorites: Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Bubba Watson
Players to watch: Henrick Stenson, Jason Day and Jimmy Walker
Ron Patey covered the golf industry for 21 years as a special sections editor with Sun Media.