THE Eisenhower Tree is gone. Tiger Woods is missing for the first time since 1995. Phil Mickelson was right. It does feel “weird” heading into the 78th Masters.
If there’s one event, though, that can still prove a stunning sporting spectacle without such iconic absent friends, it’s undoubtedly this one, as the next four days will show us.
It will be fascinating, for instance, to see if Adam Scott, who 12 months ago became the first Australian to claim a Green Jacket, can now secure another place in the record books.
Only three players have won back-to-back here in the event’s rich history and a short list containing the names of Jack Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Woods (2001-02) shows the calibre of the player required to achieve that feat.
Is Scott capable of joining that elite group? Definitely. In Woods’ absence, the world No 2 is the top-ranked player in the 87-strong field. He will be No 1 for the first time in his career if, at worst, he ties for third with no more than one other player.
The 33-year-old has failed to take that opportunity on a couple of occasions in the past, most recently when he squandered a seven-shot halfway lead in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
Where better, though, for Scott to claim the mantle, having finally made his major breakthrough here a year ago as he beat Angel Cabrera, the 2009 winner, in a play-off after both players had birdied the 72nd hole.
Billy Payne, the Augusta National chairman, described it yesterday as a “classic Masters Sunday”, applauded Scott for being a “wonderful ambassador” and praised both him and Cabrera for the sportsmanship and respect they’d shown each other at the conclusion. “A classic reminder of what makes this sport so very special,” said Payne.
If it’s not to be Scott’s week again, that’s not to say we won’t get an Australian winner. Four PGA Tour titles have already fallen to Aussies this year and the defending champion spearheads a seven-strong contingent from Down Under this week.
Pick of the rest is undoubtedly Jason Day, who is making only his fourth appearance in the season’s opening major but already has a second (2011) and third (2013) to his name.
Day, who can also become No 1 on Sunday – in his case a win is required – led after 16 holes in the final round last year before stumbling at the death and losing out to his compatriot.
He is surely a major champion in waiting, though, and Day is confident he can overcome the fact he has not played competitively since winning the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February.
Phil Mickelson also suffered an injury scare in the build-up to this week when he pulled out of the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio a fortnight ago after suffering a side strain. However, he is fighting fit again and will try to join Woods and Arnold Palmer as four-time winners by feeding off the confidence he gained from being crowned as Open champion for the first time last year.
If we are looking for omens, though, the man slipping his shoulders into the Green Jacket on Sunday will be either Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell or Darren Clarke. Why? Because the last four majors that took place without Woods were all won by an Irishman – Padraig Harrington (twice), Clarke and McIlroy.
As McIlroy admits himself, a best finish of joint-15th is disappointing from his five previous appearances here and it makes you wonder if those scars from 2011, when he squandered a four-shot lead in the final round, are still lingering.
Mcilroy insists that is not the case, though, and this would be the perfect time to prove it. It’s incredible, especially given the way he has driven the ball, that he arrived here without a 2014 win under his belt, though that should serve as extra motivation.
The motivation for Matt Kuchar, meanwhile, will be losing in a play-off to Matt Jones, another of those Aussies in the field, in the Shell Houston Open last Sunday, and he is certainly capable of providing a home winner this weekend. So, too, is Brandt Snedeker, who led heading into the last round 12 months ago only to stumble to a closing 75.
An intriguing aspect of this year’s tournament is the presence of record 24 first-time participants, including Patrick Reed, winner of the WGC-Cadillac Championship last month, FedEx Cup leader Jimmy Walker and Jordan Spieth, last year’s PGA Tour Rookie of the Year.
Fuzzy Zoeller, back in 1979, was the last rookie to come out on top here, but, with quality like that around, it would be no great surprise if that record had to be altered on this occasion.
It’s 15 years now since a European was crowned champion in Georgia and the likes of US Open champion Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood could well all benefit from coming into this event relatively under the radar.
A special week lies ahead for Craig and Kevin Stadler as they become the first father and son to tee up here in the event’s history while it will be an event to remember, too, for six amateurs in the field, including Garrick Porteous, last year’s Scottish Stroke-Play champion from Bamburgh in Northumberland.
The scene, of course, wouldn’t be set completely, especially in the year the Ryder Cup is coming to Gleneagles, without mention of the Scots. Making his 33rd Masters appearance, few players know their way round this place better than Sandy Lyle, the 1988 winner, while, in contrast, Stephen Gallacher is another on that first-timers list.
It will be fascinating to see how both fare – and Lyle made the cut last year – but they’ve already done their country proud this week as magnificent ambassadors for Scottish golf.
Yes, it may feel a bit weird due to that Eisenhower Tree having been claimed by an ice storm and Woods not being here as he recovers from back surgery, but the show goes on and, as always here, it promises to be a cracker.