Indulge me in an opportunity to expound on a Masters hypothesis that many will dismiss as ludicrous and even blasphemous.
The green carpet at Augusta rolls out Thursday under a marquee with first names such as Rory, Tiger or Phil, where learned academics begrudgingly acknowledge supporting players such as Luke Donald, Lee Westwood or Hunter Mahan.
That last trio hasn’t reached one-name status yet, but one may make a huge step towards that standing in golf’s hierarchy with a breakthrough major championship, as Charl Schwartzel did last year.
With all the star power, the defending champion is an afterthought this week. Oddly enough, Donald is No. 1 in the world, but not a favourite either.
“Tiger is always the guy that pushes the needle the most and, obviously, Rory gets a lot of attention now, but for me, that’s probably a good thing. I can kind of go about my business and get on with things,” said Donald.
The prediction of a weekend clash of the stars isn’t totally wrong, but it isn’t absolutely right either.
A Hollywood finish is the ideal script for the PGA Tour and would support conventional wisdom that it’s nearly impossible for somebody seeking his first major to manage his way through Amen Corner and into Butler Cabin to be fitted for a green jacket.
Schwartzel’s four-birdie finish last year was an anomaly then, too spectacular to happen again, but what’s forgotten is his 10 consecutive pars, including Amen Corner, in the final round.
That indicates the steady hand and grinding style so critical in such a situation and the ability to respond when necessary in order to bring the hammer down.
With that magnificent performance, it’s unfair to Schwartzel to put so much emphasis on Rory McIlroy’s meltdown in the final round, but even if that hadn’t happened, we’d still be talking about a first-time winner if McIlroy had won.
What would be ludicrous is ignoring the fact that the past seven major champions are first-timers, so suddenly, Mahan, Donald or Westwood are looking more realistic than when we began this discussion in the glare of the Masters marquee.
You can only be honest with yourself when considering how much of a chance you gave to Graeme McDowell (2010 U.S. Open), Louis Oosthuizen (2010 British Open), Martin Kaymer (2010 PGA Championship), Schwartzel, Darren Clake (2011 British Open) or Keegan Bradley (2011 PGA).
Chances are you didn’t give McIlroy much of a chance to rebound at last year’s U.S. Open after his Masters collapse, so this year’s supporting players are looking more realistic and don’t ignore the longshots either.
Mike Weir was ranked No. 10 in the world coming into the 2003 Masters, but hardly a favourite when he won his first major at Augusta.
Weir was part of another string of first-time major winners that included Rich Beem (2002 PGA Championship), Jim Furyk (2003 U.S. Open), Ben Curtis (2003 British Open), Shaun Micheel (2003 PGA Championship) and Mickelson (2004 Masters).
Later in 2004, Todd Hamilton won the British Open, so don’t even try to say you gave him, Micheel, Curtis or Beem any chance.
As Mickelson pointed out, the soft conditions from rain and the brutal storm that blew through Augusta Tuesday night might reduce the fear factor for somebody now hidden in the shadows, but that’s not the only reason to watch the longshots.
The fact is that since Tiger won in 2005, Mickelson, a two-time winner since then, is the only champion you would consider a marquee name.
To totally deny the rest of the field, which seems to be the case more than ever this year, is not thinking, it’s wishful thinking that comes from a preconceived script.
START WITH HASS, DAY, STANLEY
You can watch the big boys later. My first choice to watch in the early going is the trio of Bill Haas, Jason Day and Kyle Stanley, all quiet, potential first-time winners ... Mickelson and Mahan together with Peter Hanson also offers a couple of realistic picks ... Fred Couples and Clarke would be just fun to watch with Ryo Ishikawa, a young talent. After Clark won the British Open last year, who’s to say about the elder statesmen? Couples was sixth at the 2010 Masters and tied for 15th last year.
NO BIG DEAL
Not that Woods would have answered, but nobody brought up The Big Miss, the book about Tiger by his former swing coach Hank Haney in a press conference at Augusta on Tuesday. What promised to be a distraction for Woods has turned out to be nothing more than pre-release gossip ... After Woods’ win at Bay Hill, much has been made of the hot streak by his current swing coach, Canadian Sean Foley, who has had other clients such as Justin Rose and Hunter Mahan (twice) win this year. What isn’t mentioned much about Foley’s streak this week is that London’s Andrew Parr tied for sixth on the European Tour last weekend and Jennifer Kirby of Paris, Ont., won a college event for the University of Alabama recently. Both are Foley clients ... It’s same old, same old with Augusta sidestepping the female member issue, but it seems more appropriate with a guy named Billy doing it instead of a guy named Hootie. Just saying.