AUGUSTA, Ga. — Perfection isn’t so much a pursuit at Augusta National Golf Club as it is a practice. So there remains the possibility that, come Thursday morning, the azaleas, long since the victims of an early spring, will somehow bloom fresh. The trees felled by a violent storm Tuesday night will somehow re-root themselves. The ground soaked by more than an inch of rain will dry up, and the Masters will be what the Masters almost always is: a roars-from-all-corners, don’t-turn-away-lest-you-miss-something rite of spring.
Alas, Masters officials can’t control everything. But when they went to bed Wednesday night with the course again immaculate, they could know that all was in order because unlike any Masters in recent memory, the best players are playing their best golf on the eve of the year’s first major. Predicting what might happen in any golf tournament is fickle at best. But the leading characters — Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Luke Donald, with more who fit in nicely — aren’t searching for their games or themselves. The planets are aligned and, as Englishman Lee Westwood said, “It’s whipped up a bit of a frenzy, I suppose.”
Augusta National chairman Billy Payne wouldn't comment Wednesday about whether a woman would become a member at the home of the Masters. It was a topical issue again because one of the club's longtime sponsors, IBM, has a new female CEO.
On the heels of ending a 30-month PGA tour victory drought, Tiger Woods said Tuesday he's excited about playing the Masters, which begins Thursday at Augusta National.
The frenzy is scarcely contrived. In February, three-time Masters champion Mickelson found his putting stroke on the jagged Pacific coast and dusted Woods in a memorable finish at Pebble Beach. On the first weekend in March, Woods, a four-time champion here
, shot a final-round 62 — his best score ever on a Sunday — to emphatically confirm that his swing was intact. Yet he was still beaten that day by a resolute McIlroy, the reigning U.S. Open champion and the game’s next-brightest beacon, who used his victory in the Honda Classic to seize the No. 1 ranking in the world.
Two weeks later, Donald — who last year closed with rounds of 68-69-69 here to finish tied for fourth — snared the top ranking back from McIlroy by winning himself, his fifth victory since the start of 2010. And all that simply served as an appetizer for Woods, who secured what was once, annually, his normal perch as the pre-Masters favorite with a convincing victory in Orlando.
The situation adds some immediacy when play begins Thursday morning — with Woods and Donald in the morning wave, Mickelson and McIlroy in the afternoon.
“As many players have won major championships [by] building into the event and getting better as the week progresses, I don’t think that’s the case this week,” Mickelson said. “I think because everybody is sharp, I think the scores are going to be low, and I’ve got to be sharp from day one — from shot one — to be able to compete and be in it for Sunday.”
The most recent Masters Sunday was unforgettable, a logjam of a leader board — eight different players at some point held a piece of the lead — that wasn’t sorted out until Charl Schwartzel, a South African who owns plenty of game but lacks name recognition, somehow birdied the final four holes for an enthralling victory. That day, one of the victims Schwartzel left behind was McIlroy, the Northern Irishman who frittered away a four-shot lead and, in doing so, appeared fragile.