(In best Jim Nantz understated and somewhat forced solemnity voice) Welcome Friends, to Masters Week.
Okay, that's out of the way. Now back to real southern accents, BBQ sandwiches, Billy Payne, Bobby Jones, and Bubba Watson. Welcome to one of the best weeks of the year. If you're a yankee still digging out of snow and have yet to see pollen, well, it's definitely the best week of the year. Because you get to sit in front of your HDTV and see the reason we live down here year round - guys playing golf at Augusta National in full bloom. Yep, God's prettiest garden provides incredibly lush backdrop to some seriously good golf and high drama... all just a mile or so from I-20 (which will conveniently take all the yankees back to Hartsfield and to lots of planes that conveniently fly out of the state).
You may have seen that we have a few UGA products competing this week, but instead of giving you a breakdown, I'll give you my predictions and what to look for in the tournament overall. Kinda like a "15 things" post but in foresight, and on grass that is between magnolia and pine trees, and not between hedges. Oh wait.. there are serious hedges lining the outer boundaries of Augusta National. Make that "grass between hedges not inside the walls of Sanford Stadium" to help clear up any confusion. But mark my words, this is indeed a stadium filled to the brim with the faithful and a sprinkling of heretics alike. In no particular order:
1. Tiger is playing. A few years ago, he banished himself from pro golf for a few months, showed up in Augusta with rust, and finished 4th. He won't do as well this time, but he makes the cut, and gives a charge for about 8 holes on Sunday before finishing 40th. To make you feel old, this is the 20th anniversary of his inaugural Masters. Yep, you're that old.
2. Rory McIlroy will not win. He has a US Open, two PGA Championships, and an Open Championship to his credit. All that's missing is a green jacket to complete the career grand slam. Alas, it won't be this year.
3. Serious young American talent: They will be close, but won't win. Jordan Speith, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Patrick Reed, Billy Horshel, Brandt Snedeker, even our own beloved Chris Kirk won't win.
4. Serious not-quite-as-young American talent will also make a run, but won't win. Kuchar, Bubba, Walker, Furyk, Zach, Phil, JB Holmes also won't win. In fact, an American won't win The Masters.
5. This is the Decade of the Non-American as it concerns major championships. Stenson, Garcia, Casy, Rose, Scott, Day; these will be the guys contending. Even Westwood and Poulter are playing pretty good. And The Masters always has a very strong international field.
6. The weather is supposed to be.... well, wet. And wet will favor big hitters. 8 of the last 10 winners have been above average in the length department. And just before that, Tiger won like 4. So it's been Tiger-proofed, and the results are obvious. If the course is wet, the big hitters stay in the fairways more and on the greens more. Short hitters can't take advantage of running down hills and will be playing at a disadvantage.
7. The azaleas are reportedly at their peak. But that means the pollen is too. But if it rains, it clears the pollen. It also makes for hilarious gallery/patron watching - it never fails after some rain that I see several folks with huge mud streaks on their clothing where they fell and slid on the sloped ground. Mind you, I'm not talking about the Infirmary or injured, just those that slipped and have to wear muddy clothes all day. But hey, the azaleas will be breathtaking.
8. Nicklaus, Palmer and Player will again hit the ceremonial tee shot Thursday morning. Palmer supposedly had shoulder surgery a couple of months back but swore he would be ready. We will see. But to watch the original Big Three hit a shot before the sun rises over the pines on Thursday morning is always a pleasure.
9. The par 3 tournament will have more kids than ever. In case you don't know, there is a Par 3 tournament at the adjacent Par 3 Course on the grounds Wednesday before the tournament. It's a sweet little course, but nothing longer than 160 or so and lots of wedges and holes-in-one. Nowadays, players are letting their kids caddie or at least tag along. (Nick O'Leary of FSU Tight End fame once caddied for his grandfather Jack Nicklaus). ESPN has taken to televising it, so tune in Wednesday afternoon for some fun before the pressure and drama begin on Thursday. (Note: no par 3 winner has ever won The Masters the same year)
10. 20 first-timers this year. Not a record, but plenty of folks who likely will just enjoy the walk and won't be in serious contention. The Asia-Pacific and Latin American amateur champions likely aren't seasoned enough to deal with this big golf course and the crowds. James Hahn won't do his dance, but he just had a daughter last month and he's just happy to be here (but he is a PGA Tour winner).
11. Speaking of amateurs, The Masters has always had a soft spot for the non-professional (i.e. tournament co-founder Bobby Jones never turned professional, and this is a legacy that lives on today). This is why so many amateurs are invited and compete, and they get special treatment. Such as the current US Amateur champ plays the first two days with the defending Masters Champ. And all amateurs are invited to stay on course, in The Crow's Nest atop the clubhouse. It isn't swank, is much more "quaint", but it is above the upstairs Champions Dining Room, and has the best view of any hotel room in the world. The amateurs who have stayed in The Crow's Nest and gone on to win The Masters in later years include Nicklaus, O'Meara, Woods, Mickelson, Stadler, Tom Watson and Crenshaw. So it's pretty special.
12. The old timers always seem to make a splash. Fred Couples makes the cut every year, and even Bernard Langer can scare the flat-bellies (Trevino auto-rec). I do think Tom Watson has seen the last of his competitive days (I hate Tom Watson). This will be Ben Crenshaw's last year competing, and he deserves some applause as a two-time Champion. Miguel Angel Jimenez (the most interesting man in the world) has now reached senior status, but he can dial it up every now and then. Sandy Lyle, Mark O'Meara, Ian Woosnam and Larry Mize have all seen better days. And Mike Weir has unfortunately just lost his game. I'd say the same about Vijay Singh, but he was competitive earlier in March and had a couple of good regular Tour finishes, but his deer antler spray is all but used up.
13. The caddies wear full white overalls. All other tourneys allow for "respectful" length shorts and a bib (even including sponsorship patches), but The Masters demands full white overalls even in the practice rounds for caddies. And it can get hot under there on warm April afternoons lugging an 80 lb bag up those hills. Steve Williams (formerly with Floyd, Norman and most famously with Woods for umpteen years) would push the rule and have the overalls unzipped to his waist and very little underneath, but he still complied. Until the late 80s, players had to use Augusta National caddies and not their regular Tour caddies. For The Masters tournament committee, this amount of change is like adopting evolution as a viable theory at Bob Jones University.
14. The sand in the bunkers is indeed special. It comes from the Applachians, and is a by-product of feldspar. It is actually pure quartz pulverized to a tiny grain. That's why it's so white, and so contrasts with the green of the grass and looks great on TV, and never plugs. It acts different coming off the club, but really only to pros that can tell the difference.
15. My picks for the top 5 finishers: Jason Day, Brandt Snedeker, Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott and Jimmy Walker. This really isn't a huge stretch, but the current odds like Rory McIlroy and Justin Spieth. Which is why I left them off my list. I think Day wins it, but I've seen others say it too, which makes me worry. Day has plenty of length, has a penchant for getting out of trouble, and has a tremendous record in majors for not having won one. But The Masters, probably more than any other major, is a breakthrough major - it's a smaller field with a huge risk/reward factor, so a good golfer can win it if they manage the course and are playing well. Jason Day fits that mold. My personal wish is Russell Henley, and Chris Kirk behind that, and Erik Compton for the pure sentimental aspect.
I'm sure there's more, but my time is short and I have miles to go before I sleep. Fire it up in the comments below if you have prognostications, questions or just plain comments. We have 6 former Bulldogs in the mix, and that is reason enough to tune in and get turnt up. Go 'Dawgs!!!!
**Secondary title choice was "Augusta Club going up on a Tuesday", but I figgered we done that one already.