Tom Watson. Jack Nicklaus. Johnny Miller. Greg Norman.
Just looking at the names on paper gives you a sense of awe and the mind begins to churn out familiar catch phrases. 18 majors. Six green jackets. Duel in the Sun. The Great White Shark. 63 on Sunday at Oakmont. Four of the most accomplished and charismatic golfers in the history of the game.
And at the 1981 Masters, they were the top four finishers. Watson won his second Masters championship by two strokes over Nicklaus and Miller, and finished three clear of Norman. And just behind that august grouping was Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw and Raymond Floyd, making a total of seven Hall of Famers in the top 10. It might just be the finest leaderboard in the history of major championship golf.
Coming into this the 76th Masters tournament at Augusta, there is a sense of anticipation that the sport has not had for years. For the last 14 years, the conversation was centered on the “Tiger vs. the Field” wager. Whether he won or not, on Thursday Woods was the prohibitive favorite to win at the venue that provided the stage for his spectacular introduction to the sporting world. But this year the excitement is not reserved for Tiger alone. There is a full field of players who not only have shown their ability to win, but the ability to compete at the highest level on the biggest stages. With Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Luke Donald, the possibility exists to have a Sunday finish that could rival the ’81 championship in star power.
It starts with Woods and his four green jackets. After his dizzying fall from the pinnacle of golf, Woods has resurrected his game and comes into Augusta fresh off of his seventh win at Bay Hill. Woods’ new swing finds him in the fairway with more regularity than at any time in his career, and he is striking his irons with prodigious length and pinpoint accuracy. Most importantly for this championship, he has rediscovered his putting stroke. Even when he has struggled, Woods has not been far down the leaderboard. If he can keep all three phases together for all four rounds, Woods could find himself shopping for a fifth hanger for his Masers closet.
If Woods is the King, then McIlroy at the tender age of 22 is the Golden Prince. When Woods burst on the scene there was no dominant golfer to depose. For Rory McIlroy, the landscape is cluttered with worthy opponents, none more formidable than Woods. With perhaps the best combination of pretty and potent in a swing since Sam Snead, McIlroy has shown he has the horsepower, the touch and the imagination to go low on any course in the world. He experienced the thrill of victory with a runaway win at the U.S. Open; he also experienced the agony of defeat during his collapse in 2011 on the back nine on Sunday at Augusta. Clearly McIlroy is a thoroughbred, and with a couple of par rounds could have three majors to his credit instead of one. He’s back this year, more experienced, more focused and with a king-sized Irish chip on his shoulder. A victory this week would position him squarely as the heir to Woods’ throne.
Mickelson has spent his career in Woods’ shadow. But Mickelson has won at Augusta twice (2006, 2010) since Woods has won once (2005). He has shed the stigma of playing head to head with Woods, besting him time after time in direct competition. Before taking a break earlier this season, Mickelson was the hottest golfer in the world. Working with Butch Harmon, Mickelson is swinging with more precision and athleticism than ever. A win this week would tie him with Woods at four championships and add to Mickelson’s quest to become the most successful over-40 golfer of all time.
Luke Donald is the Rodney Dangerfield of this group, seeking respect despite his No. 1 world ranking. Donald has won five times in the last year, and when favored son McIlroy took the number one ranking this year, Donald snatched it back with a win at Innisbrook. At 34, Donald is playing stellar golf in the prime of his career. Some have said that he is “too nice” to win a major. Donald will be out to prove that he is too good not to.
It would be a blessing from the golf Gods to have Woods, McIlroy, Mickelson and Donald in the final pairings on Sunday at Augusta. Throw in defending champion Charl Schwartzel, top-ranked American Hunter Mahan, past U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell, defending PGA Champion Keegan Bradley, cartoon-long Bubba Watson … the mind boggles at the opportunities for legends to be born or burnished on Sunday. While the legacies of Woods and Mickelson are secure, the game is afoot to see if McIlroy, Donald and the rest can make to the leap from excellent to exceptional.
To use a line usually reserved for holidays that fall later on the calendar: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”