AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods and his four green jackets are on the shelf following back surgery.
Phil Mickelson and his three green jackets are present for the 78th Masters Tournament, but the 43-year-old has been battling back issues and withdrew from the Valero Texas Open two weeks ago after pulling an oblique muscle during a swing.
The two players account for six of the past 12 Masters titles, and in recent lead ups to the Masters they have been among the worlds top players who were on top of their games and had successful histories at Augusta National Golf Club.
This year, many of the games established winners have either been hampered with recent injuries, arent in top form or have shown an inability to close, while many of the games hottest players are either young and/or were winless on the PGA Tour before their recent breakthrough victories.
So, for perhaps the first time in more than a decade, there are no clear-cut favorites to win the seasons first major.
How many of the 97 players entered in the 78th Masters have a realistic chance to reign victorious come Sunday?
I would say 70, said Rory McIlroy, the favorite according to bookmakers. Obviously theres a few past champions that play that might not be able to compete. There might be a few first-timers or a few amateurs that wont compete. But then youve got the rest. Youve got a lot of guys that can win, a lot of guys that have won PGA Tour events.
Mickelson puts the number of contenders at a smaller number, particularly if the course plays firm and fast as it is expected to with sun and warmth in the forecast and brings knowledge of the courses nuances more into play.
If the course plays with firm and fast conditions, I think youre looking at less than a dozen, Mickelson said. But if it doesnt, I think youre looking at almost half the field.
Mickelson doesnt have a top-10 finish in nine starts this year, though hes coming off his best finish of the year with a tie for 12th Sunday in the Shell Houston Open.
Since 2004, when Mickelson won the first of his three Masters titles, he has been in good form, having won at least one event preceding the Masters in every season but one. Mickelson can gain inspiration from the fact that the one exception was 2010, when he won his third green jacket.
Im nervous about this week because I always like coming into this week with a win, Mickelson said. I like coming into this week being in contention a few times and having that confidence and experience to build on. But I have to give myself a little bit of slack, because I have not been 100 percent.
This is the most special tournament, and I have to rely on kind of past performances and past successes and past memories to build that confidence.
Mickelson will be competing against a record number of participants who have no Masters experience.
A first-time Masters participant hasnt taken a green jacket since Fuzzy Zoeller won in a playoff in 1979. But the sheer number of first-time participants makes it more likely this year.
Excluding the initial Masters in 1934, the 24 first-time participants in the field breaks the previous high of 23 in 1935. Those include all six amateurs in the field and 18 professionals, including Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed, who have three and two PGA Tour victories, respectively, this season and are ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in FedExCup points.
Other Masters rookies include Jordan Spieth, Harris English, Matt Every, Billy Horschel, Kevin Stadler, Victor Dubuisson and Matt Jones.
I can see where its difficult [as a first-time participant], definitely, said Spieth, 20. But at the same time, I mean, if youre hitting the ball well enough and youre putting well enough, it doesnt matter where youre playing. You can still win the golf tournament.
I dont see that its a big deal at all. I think that if I get my game ready, then its possible.
Masters rookies Harris English and Russell Henley played Augusta National multiple times while attending the University of Georgia, and Reed may be particularly dangerous this week because he attended nearby Augusta State and played the course three times while in college.
Youve got guys that are coming here for the first time, like Patrick Reed or Jordan Spieth, that Im playing with the first two rounds, and they are going to stand on the first tee on Thursday and think, Ive got a great shot at winning this tournament, McIlroy said.
McIlroy is among the worlds top players who have provided reason for doubt this year. He is coming off a 65 Sunday in Houston, but he coughed up a multi-stroke lead with a 74 in the final round of the Honda Classic in early March and eventually tied for second.
Defending Masters champion Adam Scott also had a problem closing last month in his last start at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, giving up a seven-shot 36-hole lead and three-shot 54-hole lead to finish third with a final-round 76.
As the last week came by, I realized it would be time for me to bring the green jacket back and leave it here maybe, Scott said. So that motivated me to work harder that last week at home and try and get myself into some kind of form that can maybe go back-to-back and keep the jacket for another year.
Fellow Australian and World No. 4 Jason Day has finished second and third among his three starts at Augusta National and won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February, but he hasnt played since the win because of tendinitis in his left thumb. Day said he had a cortisone injection into it last Monday and his thumb is fine.
Reigning U.S. Open winner Justin Rose has been battling a shoulder injury all year. 2012 Masters champion Bubba Watson has a win this season, but he also withdrew from his last event, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, after an opening-round 83 citing allergies. Coastal Carolina alumnus Dustin Johnson has a win this season and five top-six finishes in seven starts, but withdrew from the Houston Open last Thursday following an 80 and citing a stiff back.
Zach Johnson, the 2007 Masters champion, has a win this year and has moved into the top 10 in the world with a steady season. Sergio Garcia won in Qatar this year and is coming off a third-place finish in Houston on Sunday that moved him up to No. 6 in the world, and Matt Kuchar has had another steady top 10-laden season to move up to No. 7 in the world but bogeyed the 18th hole Sunday to eventually lose the Houston Open in a playoff.
I think if youre outside the top 50 in the world this week, youve got a great chance, Rose said. Thats kind of the way its been.
Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.