Column: Hootie Johnson leaves behind a complicated legacy

William “Hootie” Johnson, the former chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, has died at age 86.

Johnson is one of only six men to serve as chairman of Augusta National, and while The Masters reached new heights during Johnson’s tenure, he leaves behind a complicated legacy.

Under his tenure as chairman from 1998-2006, Johnson oversaw the lengthening of Augusta National as new technology allowed golfers to hit the ball further, ensuring the course remained a tough test for the world’s best players each first full week of April.  Johnson also helped to keep the field truly elite, making changes to the tournament’s qualifying procedure.

Johnson helped bring the Masters to a wider audience, as he expanded television coverage of the tournament to the entire 18-hole course for the first time — it was previously contained to only the final 10 holes — and reopened the waiting list for tournament badges for fans for the first time since the 1980s.

But Johnson was also in charge of Augusta National during its biggest controversy:  the highly publicized disagreement with Martha Burk over the club’s policy not to allow female members.

In 2002, Martha Burk, who was chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, wrote a letter to Johnson suggesting Augusta National’s male-only membership policy was sexist. In Johnson’s very public response, he claimed the club had the same rights as any private club, citing the Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts and sororities/fraternities as examples of organizations which allowed membership to only one gender.

However, Johnson’s tone in his response was less than subtle, calling Burk’s letter “offensive and coercive,” and saying the club would not change their policy “at the point of a bayonet,” and they would not be “bullied, threatened or intimidated.”  The response sparking a national controversy over the issue, with Burk leading protests against the club, including one near the course property in Augusta during the 2003 Masters.

Johnson, speaking as the public face of the Augusta National membership, certainly came across as stubborn, and many saw the response as misogynist and discriminatory.  This characterization of Johnson is ironic, because his personal history shows a much more inclusive man than the one portrayed in 2002.

Johnson, a former running back at the University of South Carolina, worked as a banker in Greenwood, South Carolina before rising to prominence in the business world as an executive at Bank of America before becoming chairman at Augusta National.

As a businessman, Johnson served as co-chairman of a committee that developed a plan to desegregate state colleges and universities in South Carolina and was a trustee at historically black Benedict College.  As a banker, Johnson often appointed both women and African-Americans to his corporate boards in an era before such appointments were common, and loaned money to minorities when others would not.  He was also the first prominent businessman to suggest removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House.

U.S. Representative Jim Clyburn (D-SC) defended Johnson to USA Today in 2002:  “His whole life has been just the opposite of what he’s being portrayed. He’s always come down on the side of access and equality. He’s not a prejudiced person in any way. He is not deserving of this controversy.”

Johnson, who was a member of Augusta National since 1968 after joining at the invitation of club co-founder Bobby Jones, eventually resigned as chairman in 2006 at age 75, becoming chairman emeritus. The club admitted two female members, Condeleezza Rice and Darla Moore, in August 2012.

Augusta National and The Masters certainly grew during Johnson’s term as chairman, but after serving in a role where most haven’t been a household name — current chairman Billy Payne is still probably better known among non-golf fans as the CEO of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics — he’ll likely be most remembered for the standoff on Augusta’s membership policy, making his legacy complicated as he is remembered in the coming days.

Chairmen of Augusta National Golf Club:
Clifford Roberts, 1931-76
William Lane, 1976-80

Hord Hardin, 1980-91
Jackson Stephens, 1991-98
Hootie Johnson, 1998-2006
Billy Payne, 2006-present

Column: Sergio’s major is worth the wait

After a long road from prodigy at age 19 to veteran at age 37, Sergio Garcia is finally a major champion.

The “best player to never win a major” burden has been lifted.  An 18-year pursuit has, at last, reached its end.

The memory of the 2007 Open Championship lip-out at Carnoustie, a water ball while leading at the 2008 PGA, and multiple run-ins with Tiger Woods has been erased by an epic victory Sunday at the 81st Masters, beating Justin Rose in a playoff.

Garcia, who won his first major in his 74th attempt, entered Sunday with the third most major championship starts without a win, behind only Jay Haas (87 starts) and Lee Westwood (76 starts), but became the third Spaniard to win the green jacket, joining Jose Maria Olazabal (1994, 1999) and Seve Ballesteros (1980, 1983), who would have turned 60 on Sunday.

At one point on Sunday, Sergio’s breakthough looked like it would have to wait another major.  After Garcia led by three on the front nine, Rose caught him with consecutive birdies on six, seven and eight, before Garcia bogeyed the 10th and 11th to fall two behind, then hit his drive on the 13th left into the pine straw across Rae’s Creek.

From there, however, Garcia turned the tide.  After a penalty stroke for an unplayable lie, Garcia punched out to 90 yards short of the green on the par-5, calmly hit his approach to seven feet, then made the putt for par.  Rose, simultaneously, missed a birdie putt to go up three.

After a birdie at 14, Garcia then hit one of the great clutch shots on the 15th hole–which is saying something considering that hole’s history in the previous 80 Masters–when his second shot to the par-5 hit the pin and settled 14 feet from the hole.  Garcia led briefly when he made the putt, although Rose birdied to tie at 9-under.

Rose birdied the 16th, where Garcia missed a short birdie putt, but Rose bogeyed the 17th to fall back to a tie, marking the first time since 1998 both members of the final pairing were tied for the lead on the 18th tee on Sunday.  That 1998 Masters was also the last time a player won his first major at age 37 or older, when Mark O’Meara won at 41.

Garcia hit two clutch approach shots into the 18th green–one in regulation and one in the playoff–setting up excellent birdie opportunities; after missing his five-footer to win in regulation, Garcia made his 12-footer in the playoff to win, and physically released the emotion of 73 previous frustrations in majors and 19 in the Masters, the most attempts ever before winning for the first time.

In winning the 81st Masters, and a record $1.98 million purse, Garcia has become the fifth player to win the Masters after previously winning low amateur in the event, joining Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ben Crenshaw and Jack Nicklaus.  Garcia won low-amateur in 1999, the last Masters before Sunday won by a Spaniard (Olazabal).

That 1999 Masters was just the beginning for Garcia, who turned pro at 19 later that year and finished second to Woods at the PGA Championship at Medinah.

What followed is a career filled with triumph in “normal events” on the PGA and European tours, perennial participation in–and impact in the outcome of–the Ryder Cup, but consistent near-misses in major championships.

Garcia finished in the top 10 in all four majors in 2002, finished as high as fourth at Augusta (2004), finished third at the 2005 U.S. Open and 2006 PGA Championship, the latter also coming during a Woods win at Medinah.

In the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie, Garcia led wire-to-wire until the final hole, when he lipped out an eight-foot put for par to win the title, then lost a four-hole playoff by one to Padraig Harrington.

A year later in the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, Garcia held the lead for most of the back nine on Sunday, only to hit a ball in the water at the 16th and bogey two of the last three holes, losing again to Harrington.

A fourth runner-up finish in a major came at the 2014 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, when a final round 66 wasn’t enough to catch a historic performance by Rory McIlroy.

Garcia did win the 2008 Players Championship, the biggest tournament that isn’t a major, with a clutch shot to within five feet on the famous island green at the 17th at TPC Sawgrass.

But the questions still remained about whether Garcia could ever win a major, including from Sergio himself, and the noise has gotten louder as time has gone on.

But this week, Garcia seemed to have a clearer mind, which appeared to help him recover from the bogeys at the 10th and 11th to make a charge down the stretch.

“Because of where my head was at, sometimes, I did think, ‘Am I ever going to win one?’,” Garcia said Sunday after winning.  “I’ve had so many good chances, and I’ve either lost them, or somebody did something to beat me. So, it did cross my mind, but lately I’ve been getting some good help. I’ve been thinking a little differently, more positively, and I’ve been more accepting, that if for whatever reason it didn’t happen, my life is still going to go on. It’s not going to be a disaster.”

Sunday’s runner-up, Justin Rose, finished second at Augusta for the second time; the Englishman might have two green jackets if not for Jordan Spieth’s record-tying 18-under performance in 2015 and Garcia’s back-nine charge on Sunday.

But Rose, a good friend with Garcia, was beyond classy in defeat.  During the round, the pair acknowledged each other’s impressive shots with thumbs ups and low-key high fives.  Once Garcia won, Rose hugged him and congratulated him.

Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open champion and 2016 Olympic gold medalist posted his 5th Masters top 10 finish, the most by Rose in any major.  Rose has never missed the cut at the Masters, and his finishes have gradually trended upward over his career, including the two seconds in the last three years, with a tie for 10th last year.

Rose should win the Masters at some point in the next few years, but Sunday was Sergio’s day, a fact that Rose even acknowledged by tweeting his congratulations to Garcia on Sunday night:

Rose was far from the only member of the pro golf community who extended congratulations to Garcia on the long-awaited major title:

While the golf community is collectively happy for Garcia, whose win is among the most popular in recent memory, Garcia himself had been possibly the happiest he has been during his career when he came to Augusta.  His change in perspective about major championships not defining him helped him play looser, and he is entering a life-changing period off the course, as he is engaged to be married this summer.

And now, after taking the pressure off himself to perform on golf’s biggest stage, he has finally been able to do something that was waited on for so long many had given up on his chances to do so.

Sergio Garcia is finally a major champion.  After an epic performance and a thrilling victory, the green jacket was worth the wait.



The 81st Masters Tournament

1. Sergio Garcia, Spain, -9 (71-69-70-69–279), won on first playoff hole
2. Justin Rose, England, -9 (71-72-67-69–279)
3. Charl Schwartzel, South Africa, -6 (74-72-68-68–282)
T4. Matt Kuchar, U.S., -5 (72-73-71-67–283)
T4. Thomas Pieters, Belgium, -5 (72-68-75-68–283)
6. Paul Casey, England, -4 (72-75-69-68–284)
T7. Kevin Chappell, U.S., -3 (71-76-70-68–285)
T7. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland, -3 (72-73-71-69–285)
T9. Ryan Moore, U.S., -2 (74-69-69-74–286)
T9. Adam Scott, Australia, -2 (75-69-69-73–286)

T11. Rickie Fowler, U.S., -1 (73-67-71-76–287)
T11. Jordan Spieth, U.S.,  -1 (75-69-68-75–287)
T18. Fred Couples, U.S., +1 (73-70-74-72–289)
T22. Jason Day, Australia, +2 (74-76-69-71–290)
T22. Phil Mickelson, U.S., +2 (71-73-74-72–290)
T27. Jon Rahm, Spain, +3 (73-70-73-75–291)
T36. Stewart Hagestad, U.S., +6 (74-73-74-73–294), low amateur
Defending champion Danny Willett (+7), Henrik Stenson (+8) and Bubba Watson (+8) missed the cut.
Dustin Johnson withdrew; Tiger Woods did not play.

Fast Five: Storylines Entering The Masters

The Masters gets underway tomorrow at Augusta National, and as always there are a plethora of storylines.

While Tiger Woods is absent, continuing to nurse a bad back, 93 of the world’s best players make up the most exclusive field in golf for the 81st time.

Over the years the fields at Augusta have gotten deeper, and this year is no exception, with dozens of players who have a legitimate chance to wear the green jacket on Sunday night.

As tournament play begins on Thursday morning, here are the biggest storylines:

The Weather

After Wednesday’s Par 3 contest was rained out for the first time ever, the course should play soft.  However, it won’t play easy, as winds of over 20 miles per hour are forecast for the Augusta area on Thursday and Friday.

Augusta National is never easy, but should play even more difficult than usual if this forecast is correct.  A score of even-par could easily be in contention entering the weekend.

Saturday and Sunday, the weather will be better.  Calm winds and warmer temperatures will allow for better scoring conditions, meaning that the even-par score that should be a contender on Friday evening will have to move a few under-par to don the green jacket on Sunday evening.

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson

This will be the first major Dustin Johnson has played as the top-ranked golfer in the world, and the first Masters since his victory in last year’s U.S. Open, a win that got the proverbial monkey off his back in major championships.

Few players have entered a Masters as hot as Johnson enters this year’s edition.  Johnson has won three straight starts on the PGA Tour, and has finished in the top six in six of his last seven starts.

Johnson was the clear favorite early Wednesday, but now his status for the tournament may be in jeopardy after accidentally falling down the stairs in his Augusta rental home and injuring his lower back.  Fortunately, Johnson has the very last tee time (2:03 pm ET), so he has the longest possible amount of time to treat his injury and decide if he can play.

Johnson’s manager says he hopes to play, but the uncertainty about whether Johnson can play and how well he can play with the injury has made Johnson an even bigger story entering the first round.

Jordan Speith vs. the 12th Hole

Last year, Jordan Spieth led The Masters by five shots entering the back nine on Sunday, but a quadruple-bogey seven on the par-3 12th hole cost him his second straight green jacket.

Now, as the 23-year old seeks his third major championship, Spieth will have face redemption at the difficult Amen Corner hole after hitting two balls in the water the last time he played it in competition.

Spieth hit his tee shot to about one foot at the 12th in Tuesday’s practice round, perhaps exorcising some of the demons from a year ago.

Even with last year’s collapse, Spieth’s record at Augusta is the best ever by a player in his first three starts:  a win and two runner-up finishes.  With that experience, it would be shocking if Speith is not in the mix late Sunday.

The Young Guns

Spieth is not the only young star capable of winning the green jacket on Sunday.

20 years after a 21-year old Tiger Woods changed the game of golf forever with his 12-shot Masters win, the young stars who grew up watching Woods are primed for Masters success.

Rory McIlroy (age 27) is seeking to win the final leg of the career grand slam, and would become the second youngest to do so (Woods was 24).  McIlroy, who is ranked second in the world, led through nine holes of the final round in 2011 before a back nine 43 in his best chance to win to date.  McIlroy has finished in the top 7 in both of his starts after missing time with a rib injury.

Jason Day (29) is ranked third in the world.  His form hasn’t been as strong as some of the others on this list, although his mother’s cancer battle may explain that.  Now, after her cancer surgery was successful and she will not require chemotherapy, Day has a clear mind to go chase the green jacket.  Day tied for second in the 2011 Masters and finished third in 2013, and has the game to threaten in any major championship; he won the 2015 PGA Championship.

Justin Thomas (23) is ranked seventh in the world after starting the 2016-17 PGA Tour season with three wins.  Thomas, who grew up competing against Jordan Spieth in junior events, tied for 39th in his only Masters appearance last year, and his best major finish is a tie for 18th, although he has made the cut in five of his six starts.

Hideki Matsuyama (25), ranked fourth in the world, also has two wins and two seconds this season, plus an unofficial one against a strong field at the Hero World Challenge.  The Japanese star made the cut at Augusta twice as an amateur, and has finished in the top seven the last two years, along with a tie for fourth at last year’s PGA Championship.

Rickie Fowler (28), ranked eighth in the world, has a win at The Honda Classic and six top-six finishes this season.  While he didn’t win last week in Houston, some suggested his result of third is even better than winning (only two players the last 60 years have won The Masters after winning the week before, a spell that now falls to Shell Houston Open winner Russell Henley).  Fowler tied for 5th in the 2014 Masters as part of a season when he finished in the top five of all four majors.

Jon Rahm (22), ranked 12th, is the least established star on this list, but is still coming into Augusta on a hot streak after winning the Farmers Insurance Open and finishing in the top 10 in his last four starts (including two WGC events).  However, this is Rahm’s first Masters–the only Masters rookie since 1935 to win was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.  Rahm’s idol is fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, whose 60th birthday would have been this Sunday.

Danny Willett (29), ranked 17th, is the defending Masters champion, although he has not won an event since donning the green jacket last April.  Jack Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Tiger Woods (2001-02) are the only players to win back-to-back Masters.

Other young guns with a legitimate chance include Emiliano Grillo (24), Brooks Koepka (26), Daniel Berger (23) and Tyrrell Hatton (25).

Youth vs. Experience

But while the young stars have the talent to win The Masters, experience is always a factor at Augusta.

Masters champions receive a lifetime exemption into the event, with most playing the event into their late 50s or early 60s.  Often, one of these legends will randomly pop up on the leaderboard and contend on the weekend.

Jack Nicklaus, who stopped playing the Masters after 2005 but will be one of the honorary starters on Thursday morning, won his sixth Masters at age 46 in 1986 to become the oldest Masters winner, then tied for sixth at age 58 in 1998.

Phil Mickelson (46) is trying to tie Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods for the second most Masters titles, as a win would be his fourth.  Mickelson, while still in his prime, is a few months older than Nicklaus was in 1986, and has finished in the top seven in two of his last three starts.

Bernhard Langer (59), the 1985 and 1993 champion, tied for eighth in 2014 and was tied for third, two shots back through three rounds last year, before fading with a final round 79.  Langer comes in in good form with a win and two thirds this season in the PGA Tour Champions, where he leads the Charles Schwab Cup standings.

Fred Couples (57), marking the 25th anniversary of his 1992 Masters triumph, can threaten if his bad back cooperates.  Couples finished in the top 20 in every Masters from 2010-14, including a sixth in 2010, and has finished in the top six in all four PGA Tour Champions starts this year, with one win, and is second in Charles Schwab Cup points.

Other past Masters champions in the field include Charl Schwartzel (32), Adam Scott (36), Trevor Immelman (37), two-time champion Bubba Watson (38), Zach Johnson (41), Mike Weir (46), Angel Cabrera (47), two-time winner Jose Maria Olazabal (51), Vijay Singh (54), Augusta native Larry Mize (58), Sandy Lyle (59), Ian Woosnam (59), and Mark O’Meara (60).

There are also players who have not won The Masters, but still have plenty of experience on Augusta’s hallowed ground.

Ernie Els (47), a four-time major champion, may be playing his final Masters, as his exemption from winning the 2012 Open Championship expires after this year.  From 2000-2004, Els finished in the top six every year, including two runner-up finishes.  Last year, he six-putted the first hole, eliminating a realistic chance to win just 15 minutes after his tournament started.

Jimmy Walker (38) and Henrik Stenson (turned 41 on Wednesday) are the winners of the last two major championships of 2016.  Walker, who won the PGA Championship, tied for 8th in the 2014 Masters, while Stenson, the Open Champion, has never finished better than 14th at Augusta, although he has 11 combined top 10s in the other three majors and was the 2016 Olympic silver medalist.

Matt Kuchar (38) and Brandt Snedeker (36) are both seeking their first major, and have both said how emotional a win at Augusta would be.  Kuchar finished in the top 10 each year from 2012-14, including a tie for third in 2012, and won bronze at the 2016 Olympics.  Snedeker has three top 10s including a tie for third in 2008.

Steve Stricker (50) has scaled back on playing regular tour events, focusing on the majors as he still seeks his first.  He has two top 10s in The Masters and none since 2009, but has not missed a Masters cut since 2008.

Lee Westwood (43), Paul Casey (39) and Sergio Garcia (37) are each European stars who have had successful careers but never won a major championship, while Justin Rose (36) has one major, the 2013 U.S. Open, and won the Olympic gold medal in 2016.  Westwood has only finished outside the top 11 once in the last seven Masters, with two runner-up finishes; Casey has four top tens, including ties for sixth and fourth the last two years; Garcia has three top eight finishes including a tie for fourth in 2004 and has four second-place finished in majors; Rose has four top 10s including a tie for second in 2015.



2017 Masters
Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.
Notable First Round Tee Times (ET)
7:40 a.m.:  Honorary Starters (Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player)

9:06 a.m.:  Zach Johnson, Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Hadwin
9:28 a.m.:  Adam Scott, Kevin Kisner, Andy Sullivan
10:01 a.m.:  Fred Couples, Paul Casey, Kevin Na
10:12 a.m.:  Russell Knox, Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama
10:34 a.m.:  Jordan Spieth, Martin Kaymer, Matthew Fitzpatrick
10:45 a.m.:  Phil Mickelson, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Si Woo Kim
10:56 a.m.:  Brandt Snedeker, Justin Rose, Jason Day
12:24 p.m.:  Danny Willett, Matt Kuchar, Curtis Luck (a)
12:46 p.m.:  Angel Cabrera, Henrik Stenson, Tyrrell Hatton
1:19 p.m.:  Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Shane Lowry
1:41 p.m.:  Rory McIlroy, Hideto Tanihara, Jon Rahm
1:52 p.m.:  Marc Leishman, Bill Haas, Justin Thomas
2:03 p.m.:  Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Jimmy Walker

Masters Champions
(Year, Winner, Nationality, Score)
1934 Horton Smith, U.S., 284

1935 Gene Sarazen, U.S., 282
1936 Horton Smith, U.S., 285
1937 Byron Nelson, U.S., 283
1938 Henry Picard, U.S., 285
1939 Ralph Guldahl, U.S., 279
1940 Jimmy Demaret, U.S., 280
1941 Craig Wood, U.S., 280
1942 Byron Nelson, U.S., 280
1943-45 No tournament due to World War II
1946 Herman Keiser, U.S., 282
1947 Jimmy Demaret, U.S., 281
1948 Claude Harmon, U.S., 279
1949 Sam Snead, U.S., 282
1950 Jimmy Demaret, U.S., 283
1951 Ben Hogan, U.S., 280
1952 Sam Snead, U.S., 286
1953 Ben Hogan, U.S., 274
1954 Sam Snead, U.S., 289
1955 Cary Middlecoff, U.S., 279
1956 Jack Burke Jr., U.S., 289
1957 Doug Ford, U.S., 283
1958 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 284
1959 Art Wall Jr., U.S., 284
1960 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 282
1961 Gary Player, South Africa, 280
1962 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 280
1963 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 286
1964 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 276
1965 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 271
1966 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 288
1967 Gay Brewer, U.S., 280
1968 Bob Goalby, U.S., 277
1969 George Archer, U.S., 281
1970 Billy Casper, U.S., 279
1971 Charles Coody, U.S., 279
1972 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 286
1973 Tommy Aaron, U.S., 283
1974 Gary Player, South Africa, 278
1975 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 276
1976 Raymond Floyd, U.S., 271
1977 Tom Watson, U.S., 276
1978 Gary Player, South Africa, 277
1979 Fuzzy Zoeller, U.S., 280
1980 Seve Ballesteros, Spain, 275
1981 Tom Watson, U.S., 280
1982 Craig Stadler, U.S., 284
1983 Seve Ballesteros, Spain, 280
1984 Ben Crenshaw, U.S., 277
1985 Bernhard Langer, West Germany, 282
1986 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 279
1987 Larry Mize, U.S., 285
1988 Sandy Lyle, Scotland, 281
1989 Nick Faldo, England, 283
1990 Nick Faldo, England, 278
1991 Ian Woosnam, Wales, 277
1992 Fred Couples, U.S., 275
1993 Bernhard Langer, Germany, 277
1994 Jose Maria Olazabal, Spain, 279
1995 Ben Crenshaw, U.S., 274
1996 Nick Faldo, England, 276 
1997 Tiger Woods, U.S., 270
1998 Mark O’Meara, U.S., 279
1999 Jose Maria Olazabal, Spain, 280
2000 Vijay Singh, Fiji, 278
2001 Tiger Woods, U.S., 272
2002 Tiger Woods, U.S., 276
2003 Mike Weir, Canada, 281
2004 Phil Mickelson, U.S., 279
2005 Tiger Woods, U.S., 276
2006 Phil Mickelson, U.S., 281
2007 Zach Johnson, U.S., 289
2008 Trevor Immelman, South Africa, 280
2009 Angel Cabrera, Argentina, 276
2010 Phil Mickelson, U.S., 272
2011 Charl Schwartzel, South Africa, 274
2012 Bubba Watson, U.S., 278
2013 Adam Scott, Australia, 279
2014 Bubba Watson, U.S., 280
2015 Jordan Spieth, U.S., 270
2016 Danny Willett, England, 283

Masters Preview

Promos for the Masters on ESPN since the first of the year have been saying “It won’t be spring until it’s The Masters.”  And with that, just a few days before the annual pilgrimage of golfers and golf lovers to Augusta, Georgia, it warmed up across the south.  And, quoting the advertising of CBS, the “tradition unlike any other” is here.

Unfortunately, Tiger Woods is not, due to surgery on his back.  The man who has played in every Masters since 1994, and has been the favorite in practically every one since his first win in 1997.  Therefore, this field is wide open.

As always, there are tons of storylines this week, with the absence of Tiger certainly being one of them.  A young field, with a record number of first-timers, is another.  Perhaps my favorite is the story of Craig and Kevin Stadler.  Craig, the 1982 Masters champion, and Kevin, the 2014 WM Phoenix Open winner, will become the first father-son pair to play in the same Masters (they are the ninth tandem to both play in the Masters in their lifetime), as Kevin plays his first, and Craig, at age 60, plays his last.  While the tournament did not pair them together (that shouldn’t have been that hard, Augusta), Kevin will be four groups ahead of his father on each of the first two days, allowing him to meet Craig on the 18th green.  If Craig surprisingly makes the cut, perhaps the golf gods will allow them to be paired together.  If not, Kevin can see his father putt out at Augusta one last time.

I don’t have to preview the course, as anyone who has ever watched the Masters knows about the glory, prestige, and excitement created each April by the Augusta National Golf Club.  However, one change has been made, and not by the choice of the Augusta hierarchy.  The landmark Eisenhower Tree on the left side of the 17th hole had to be removed in February after an ice storm that some have called the worst ever to hit the Augusta area.  Without the tree to block the potential path of tee shots on the hole, the drive was just made a lot easier.  Expect a lot more balls in the 17th fairway, which should lead to easier approach shots, and a few more birdies on Augusta’s penultimate hole.

I heard one commentator say there are literally 30 players in the field with a legitimate shot at winning from the moment they step on the first tee on Thursday.  I thought that number was a little high, until I went through the field and looked at who had a good shot to win.  Sure enough, here are the 30 players with a great chance to be wearing the green jacket on Sunday night:

30. Nick Watney
Watney is by no means on this list due to current form, but instead due to experience; Watney has four top 20s in six Masters starts, including a 7th in 2010.

29. Graeme McDowell
McDowell seems to play his best on big stages, although his career record at Augusta shows four missed cuts in six appearances. He does, however, also have a pair of top 17 finishes.

28. Patrick Reed
One of a record 24 Masters rookies, Reed has won three times since August, including a WGC event at Doral. He also has all the confidence in the world.

27. KJ Choi
Choi tends to suddenly appear on the leaderboard at Augusta, with a 3rd in 2004 and top 10s in 2010 and 2011. Has played every major since 2002 Masters (I was surprised by that).

26. Louis Oosthuizen
The sweet-swinging South African has made only one cut in five attempts at Augusta, but finished 2nd in 2012, losing to Bubba Watson in a playoff. Has been battling injury lately, though.

25. Hideki Matsuyama
The former Asian Amateur champion was low amateur in 2011, and finished in the top 20 in all three majors he played in last year. Has a very bright future.

24. Fred Couples
Throw out the stats for Freddy; the ageless wonder (he’s 54 now), and 1992 Masters champion, seems to play well here no matter how he’s playing coming in. Here’s one relevant stat: Couples has finished in the top 15 each of the last four Masters, and had a shot on Sunday in 2010.

23. Lee Westwood
Westwood is not having a good year, but one of the best players without a major is one of two players to finish in the top 15 each of the last four Masters (Couples is the other), including a 2nd in 2010 and a tie for 3rd in 2012.

22. Jimmy Walker
The 35-year old got his long-awaited first PGA Tour win in October, and won two more events soon after. He is playing his first Masters, and his career best in a major is a tie for 21st at the 2012 PGA.

21. Ernie Els
The four-time major champion is always a threat, and a win this week would be the third leg of the career grand slam for the Big Easy. Finished top 6 at Augusta every year from 2000-2004, but has only one top 15 since (2013).

20. Steve Stricker
The now part-time player has a plethora of top 20s in majors, 11 top 10s, but only three top 5s, and none since 1999. Did finish tied for 6th at Augusta in 2009.

19. Henrik Stenson
While his best Masters finish is 17th, he ended 2013 as the hottest player in the world, finishing 2nd at the Open Championship and 3rd at the PGA before winning the FedEx Cup. Of his 7 top 10s in majors, 6 are top 5s. Could become world #1 with a win.

18. Ian Poulter
Poulter had top 10s in 2010 and 2012, and has come close to winning a pair of Open Championships and a PGA. If someone tells him the Ryder Cup is being played this week, he might blow out the field, as he always plays well in that arena.

17. Charl Schwartzel
He has all of one top 5 in a major in his career, but we know he’s capable of winning after he birdied the last four holes to win the 2012 Masters over a crowded leaderboard. He did finish in the top 25 in three of the four majors last year, with a high of tied for 14th in the US Open.

16. Angel Cabrera
Cabrera is another player that his form coming in never seems to matter. “El pato” won the Masters in a 2009 playoff, over Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell, and was in the final group on Sunday in 2011 and 2013, losing last year’s playoff to Adam Scott, with each result coming with little to no warning signs.

15. Sergio Garcia
One of the best players without a major title comes in with good form, having finished in the top 20 in every start this season, including a win in Europe in January and a 3rd last week in Houston.

14. Keegan Bradley
Augusta seems to fit Bradley’s game, although his best finish in two tries is just 27th. He is one of two players in the last century to win his first major start (along with Ben Curtis), and comes in off a 2nd at Bay Hill and five top 20s in seven starts so far this year.

13. Brandt Snedeker
Snedeker has been in the last group on Sunday twice, in 2008 and 2013, and was the 54-hole leader last year. He has publicly spoken about the process of learning the course, and what it takes to win here. His worst Masters finish as a pro is 19th, although his start to 2014 has been up-and-down.

12. Jordan Spieth
No Masters rookie has won the tournament since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, and Spieth is the highest ranked rookie on my list. He certainly appears to have the game and nerves to do it, but history isn’t on his side. Was low amateur at the 2012 US Open, and comes in with a pair of top 5s early in the season on the west coast.

11. Jim Furyk
The most recent “Mr. 59” has a trio of top 6 finishes at Augusta, although none have come since 2003, and is coming off heartbreak in the 2012 US Open and 2013 PGA. He is one of the most consistent players of this era, and can be counted on for a likely top 20, if not better, and has top 20s in three of his last four Tour starts.

10. Jason Dufner
While the defending PGA champion hasn’t finished better than tied for 20th in his three Masters appearances, he hasn’t finished worse than 30th, and he now knows what it takes to win a major. He was the 36-hole co-leader in 2012, and has finished in the top 5 in five of his last ten non-Masters major attempts, and hasn’t missed a cut all year.

9. Bubba Watson
The 2012 champion hasn’t played on Tour in over a month, but he finished in the top 2 each of his previous three starts, with a win at Riviera. In his career, when he’s threatened in major championships, he’s really threatened, losing a playoff at the 2010 PGA, and winning the green jacket in 2012.

8. Justin Rose
Rose finally won his long-anticipated major championship at the US Open last year at Merion. While his Masters record isn’t the best, he did tie for 5th in 2007 and tie for 8th in 2012. His best result of the year is a tie for 8th in Tampa, although he appears to have centered his schedule around the majors more than he has in past years.

7. Zach Johnson
While Johnson’s Masters win in 2007 is his only good finish at Augusta, he is one of the few top 10 players in the world who is actually playing very well right now, with a win at the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii and three other top 10s. He has finished in the top 10 in three of the last six majors.

6. Dustin Johnson
The one-time novelty player known for his length is now a threat to win every time he tees it up. In four starts this year, he has two runner-ups and a worst finish of 6th. He came painfully close to the US Open and PGA in 2010, and the Open Championship in 2011, and the only thing holding him back could be that, if he is in contention on Sunday, it would be his first time with a shot down the stretch.

5. Jason Day
It seems it is just a matter of time before one of the game’s best young players, wins a major, and particularly the Masters. He finished in a tie for 2nd in 2011 and 3rd in 2013, falling just short of becoming the first Aussie to win the event. He also has two other runner-up finishes in majors, at the 2011 and 2013 US Opens. He can become #1 in the world with a win, and won his last start at the WGC-Match Play, although he has been sidelined with a thumb injury since.

4. Matt Kuchar
Kuchar has a reputation as a top 10 machine, and that has held true early this season, with five top 10s and a 13th in eight starts. He finished tied for 4th and 2nd in his last two starts, and had the tournament won in Houston before an unfortunately timed pull and the incredible luck of Matt Jones. Kuchar finished tied for 3rd in the 2012 Masters, and had a great shot to win on the back nine, and tied for 8th last year. The Georgia native surely wants this major more than any other.

3. Phil Mickelson
It’s hard to bet against the three-time Masters champion, particularly after his unexpected win at the Open Championship last July that leaves him just a US Open away from the career grand slam. Before last year’s tie for 54th, Lefty had finished in the top 27 in every Masters since 1997, and the top 10 every year of that stretch except three. Phil has eight top 3 finishes in this event. The words Mickelson and Masters seems synonymous. While he hasn’t had the best results of his career this year, a runner-up in a European Tour event at Abu Dhabi and five top 20s on the PGA Tour early in the season isn’t bad at all.

2. Rory McIlroy
The favorite in Las Vegas is probably the most talented player in the field. He, surprisingly, doesn’t have a top 10 in his Masters career, in five tries, with a best finish of tied for 15th in 2011 after leading by four after 54 holes and leading by one on the tenth tee on Sunday. He knows how to win majors, with a pair of eight-shot victories in the 2011 US Open and the 2012 PGA. Augusta seems to suit his game, so it’s probably only a matter of time before he is wearing a green jacket. Will it be this year? In four Tour starts this season, he has finished in the top 25 in each, with a tie for 2nd at the Honda Classic, and a tie for 7th last week in Houston, where he closed with a 65.

1. Adam Scott
Scott finally won his first major at last year’s Masters, after finishing in the top 10 the previous two years, with a tie for 2nd in 2011. In doing so, he became the first Australian to win the Masters after so many heartbreaks for the nation. After winning at Augusta last year, he finished tied for 3rd at the Open Championship and tied for 5th at the PGA. He was playing fairly well before his breakthrough win last year, but is playing better coming in this year. In five starts, his worst finish is a tie for 25th, while each of his other four finishes were in the top 12, with a 3rd in his last start at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. No one has won the Masters back-to-back since Tiger Woods in 2001-02, and the only others to do it are Nick Faldo in 1989-90 and Jack Nicklaus in 1965-66. Scott, however, seems poised and ready to join them. Should he win, the 33-year old would jump to the top of the world rankings for the first time in his career.