AUGUSTA, Ga. - On the far end of the course Wednesday, near the only palm tree at Augusta National, Lee Westwood rolled long putts across the fourth green as he practiced alone on a quiet afternoon before the Masters.
Spotting two familiar faces in the crowd, he looked over with a grin and said, “Lost? Bar closed?”
Through the pines and dogwoods, down a steep slope toward the 16th green, players stopped on the edge of the green to the fans’ delight and tried skipping shots across the pond and onto the green. On what might be the only day of booing, Graeme McDowell got an earful when his shot sank before it got halfway across the water.
It sure didn’t feel like the day before the first men’s major this year.
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But then, Augusta National has a way of putting players at ease with its sheer beauty, when the Masters is more about azaleas and jasmine and enjoying a special place than trying to win a green jacket.
That figures to change today.
“The Masters has a fear factor, and that’s the best thing about this golf course,” three-time champion Nick Faldo said Wednesday.
Phil Mickelson will try to join some exclusive clubs when he tees off in the opening round as the clear favorite. Never has Lefty had so much at stake at one tournament.
He can go to No. 1 in the world for the first time in his career. He can join Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer as the only players with at least four Masters victories. And he can become the fourth player to win consecutive Masters.
To show how much he’s ready, Mickelson poured in 18 birdies last weekend to win the Houston Open. And when he arrived in Augusta, one of the first visits he made was to a back specialist.
“This week is the one week where I swing the absolute hardest,” Mickelson said.
Woods, no longer the betting favorite at Augusta for the first time since 1999, is more concerned with a shorter club — his putter. It has kept him from winning the Masters twice in the past four years.
Even so, Woods and Mickelson remain the two dominant forces.
“The Masters will always start with Tiger and Phil,” said Robert Allenby, who will play with Woods the first two rounds.
The difference this year: They have some company.
PGA champion Martin Kaymer is No. 1 in the world. He considers the favorite to be Luke Donald, who beat Kaymer in the Match Play Championship earlier this year. Then there’s Westwood, who has been no worse than third in four of the past five majors. Throw in the likes of Dustin Johnson, Nick Watney, Rory McIlroy and Paul Casey, and the smallest field of any major suddenly has a long list of contenders.
Some of that is a new generation arriving. Some of that is Woods no longer standing in their way.
“In the past, a lot of guys used up a lot of energy thinking about Tiger and what he’s doing. Now they’re doing their own thing and thinking about what they’re needing to do,” Faldo said. “There’s genuinely 20 guys who could win this. I’m hoping we have a dozen guys coming down the back nine Sunday with a shot.”
While Woods has gone 17 months without a win, Nicklaus won’t rule him out.
“They both are going to play well,” Nicklaus said. “But there are other guys who will do the same.”
With the forecast for sunshine the rest of the week, the course should be fast and firm and play shorter than its 7,435 yards. That could put a premium on the short game.
“You don’t have to be a big hitter to win here,” Mickelson said. “If you’re on your short game, you have a good chance.”
First round, noon-4:30 p.m., ESPN