Contention, in this event, usually means dealing with Woods, who has 12 top-eight finishes in his last 15 Masters. No, he has not won here in his last six attempts. Yes, he has played 10 straight majors without a victory, matching the longest dry spell of his career. But there are two overriding factors: his striking return to form at Bay Hill, where he beat runner-up Graeme McDowell by five shots. Consider, too, that even as he dealt with a dodgy game and significant personal issues, he still managed to finish no worse than tied for sixth in his last six appearances here.
“It’s hard to go against Tiger Woods,” said three-time champion Gary Player, who will join Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as an honorary starter Thursday. “When Tiger Woods is playing his best, there’s nobody better.”
Thus, some of the buildup has centered around Woods vs. McIlroy, McIlroy vs. Woods. Though Mickelson said calmly, “I’m cool with it,” and Donald conceded, “Everyone wants to make that kind of rivalry, and obviously those two guys garner the most attention right now,” it is a notion that ignores the other worthy names that could join them Sunday evening.
“I think everybody in this room would have to be naive to think it was a two-horse race, wouldn’t they?” Westwood said. “There’s more. I think Phil might have a little something to say about that. Luke might. I might.”
There, then, are the horses, all the right ones at precisely the right time. They aren’t, they say, worrying about each other.
“You can’t go out on the golf course thinking about other people,” McIlroy said. “You just have to try and concentrate on yourself and try to get the ball around in the best score possible. That’s all I can really think about.”
So leave the rest of us to imagine what Sunday at the Masters — a phrase that carries weight with it on its own — might be like this time.
“Can you imagine what an exciting tournament it’s going to be?” Player said. “It’s going to be just marvelous.”