AUGUSTA, Ga. — Periodically, as one generation of great players ages or frays, the Masters asks a question of its young, of golf’s best rising players, of the key men who will be its future: So who’s next?
And might it be Adam Scott, the defending Masters champion who is ranked No. 2 in the world and would take over the top spot with a victory here?
The sport has seldom asked this question with more urgency than now. Twenty-one players have won the past 24 major championships. The world’s No. 1 player (injured Tiger Woods) is in a six-year major drought, and Phil Mickelson, while still a threat, is also 43. So many eyes turn to Scott as the answer.
The history of the Masters, the part that does the heavy lifting, is actually the history of just a couple of dozen men who grew comfortable at Augusta National, believed that the course, the aura and the pressure of the place suited them and then dominated the leader board for 10 to 20 years. Since the Masters demands muscle, touch, nerves and brains, the winners here tend toward the hegemonic.
Consider the number of top-10 finishes by players who’ve hit a ball here this week: Jack Nicklaus 22, Tom Watson 15, Gary Player 15, Phil Mickelson 14 (the same as Woods), Arnold Palmer 12, Ben Crenshaw 11, Ray Floyd 11 and Fred Couples 10. What’s golf? For 50 years, those names — and others who shined brightly here with multiple Masters wins, such as Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo — were golf.
The first answer to “Who is next?” is often Scott. At 33, with his first major title to buoy his confidence, the door of opportunity could hardly be wider. As the first Australian to win the Masters, his place in his homeland is secure for golf eternity. His 69 on Thursday put him just one shot out of the lead. And he certainly knows this plot line.
After winning a major “there is a certain sense of freedom in the way you play,” Scott said after a par save Thursday on No. 18. “No doubt you can see that in the way Phil’s played around here since breaking through. Hitting some incredible shots that maybe if he had not had the success or the wins, he might not have hit being a little tighter.”
“I hope I get on one of those runs when I’m one of those guys who kind of develops an affinity for the golf course like Phil Mickelson has and many other guys have as well over the years,” Scott added. “I feel the course sets up well for me, and while it’s like this, I’ve got to take advantage of it.”
Or could our man be Jason Day, who has finished second and third in ’11 and ’13 but staggered Thursday to an opening 75? Or 2012 champion Bubba Watson, who’s also a shot out of the lead. Could a less-expected victor like Charl Schwartzel find a haven here? Or ’12 runner-up Louis Oosthuizen, who also is just a shot behind first-round leader Bill Haas, the 2013 AT&T National winner. Or Haas himself, who has never finished higher than 20th here but, at 31, may be mastering the local knowledge.
Golf is a sport that waxes and wanes with the size of its key stars. And those protagonists, their styles and personalities, often arrive then rise here in April. Who gets the biggest cheers or ratings in golf? It’s clearly Mickelson and Woods. They’ve been great everywhere. But with seven green jackets between them, they’ve owned our screens and our screams in April.
Scott may be the ideal example of how hard it is to claim such stature but, once you get over the hump and actually win here, suddenly find the challenge much more manageable. In his first nine Masters, he had more missed cuts (two) than top 10 finishes (one) and only finished higher than 18th once. The last three years: second, eighth and a victory.
That victory carries enormous extra momentum, especially for a player who has at time been shaky under pressure, especially with the putter. In contention in the past two British Opens, he has had four bogeys in a row on Sunday both times, once gifting the 2012 title to Ernie Els.
The winners here are a club and, in a sense, a self-perpetuating one. Past champions have their own locker room, literally above the rest of the common players. They have a separate Champions Dinner with the previous year’s winner selecting the menu. Scott’s choice: Moreton Bay bugs, an Australian specialty that’s something like a lobster tail.
“There’s no doubt winning the Masters last year had me a little more comfortable on the first tee than I’ve ever been in the past because I didn’t have the legs shaking and nerves jangling for six or seven holes like usual, so that was enjoyable,” said Scott, as amiable as any champ here ever.
“The first few holes of the Masters is the most nervous I ever get on a golf course. We’ve been waiting eight months to play a major championship. It’s hard to calm down after you get going. Even if you get off to a good start, it’s hard to calm down, let alone a bad start,” Scott said. “As I teed up today, I kind of felt like what was the worst that can happen: I’m still going to be a Masters champion.”
Even if one Masters’ jacket sometimes seems to get you the first sleeve of your second one, the path is still brutal. Even the emotion of being a crowd favorite here can be double-edged.
“The reception into every green and almost every tee box was incredible, and the best one, the memory that will stick with me forever, was walking up to the 12th tee and everyone getting out of their seats as I approached,” said Scott, shaking his head at the thought.
So Scott, perhaps on the cusp of No. 2, is the next man up to make the Masters his manor, right?
This is golf. Not so fast.
“It was great. The level of respect,” said Scott, recalling the ovation at he stepped to the 12th tee. “But then I went and hit it in the water.”
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.