AUGUSTA, Ga. -- On the far end of the course Wednesday, near the only palm tree at Augusta National, Lee Westwood rolled putts across the fourth green as he practiced alone on a quiet afternoon before the Masters.
Spotting two familiar faces in the crowd, he looked over with a grin and said, “Lost? Bar closed?”
Through the pines and dogwoods, down a steep slope toward the 16th green, players stopped on the edge of the 16th green to the fans’ delight and tried skipping shots across the pond and onto the green. On what might be the only day of booing, Graeme McDowell got an earful when his shot sank before it got halfway across the water.
It sure didn’t feel like the day before the first major of the year.
But then, Augusta National has a way of putting players at ease with its sheer beauty, when the Masters is more about azaleas and jasmine and enjoying a special place than trying to win a green jacket.
That figures to change today.
“The Masters has a fear factor, and that’s the best thing about this golf course,” three-time champion Nick Faldo said Wednesday.
Phil Mickelson will try to join some exclusive clubs when he tees off in the opening round as the clear favorite in the first major of the year. Never has Lefty had so much at stake at one tournament.
He can go to No. 1 in the world for the first time in his career. He can join Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer as the only players with at least four green jackets. And he can become only the fourth player to win the Masters in consecutive years.
To show how much he’s ready, Mickelson poured in 18 birdies last weekend to win the Houston Open. And when he arrived at the Masters, one of the first visits he made was to a back specialist.
“This week is the one week where I swing the absolute hardest,” Mickelson said. “I’ve been working out for it. I saw a back specialist just to make sure that my back hangs in there. It feels terrific, but I’ve been working on it for some time to make sure it’s strong enough to withstand the rotational speed that I’m going to be trying to apply this week. Because it’s a big advantage if you can move it out there.”
Woods, no longer the betting favorite at Augusta for the first time since 1999, is more concerned with a shorter club -- his putter. It has kept him from winning the Masters twice in the last four years, and kept him from contending since his return to golf a year ago.
Even so, they remain the two dominant forces.
“The Masters will always start with Tiger and Phil,” said Robert Allenby, who will play with Woods the first two rounds. “Their record here and the way they play Augusta make them the two to beat.”
The difference this year: They have some company.
PGA champion Martin Kaymer is No. 1 in the world and will try to win his second straight major. He considers the favorite to be Luke Donald, who beat Kaymer in the Match Play Championship earlier this year. Then there’s Westwood, who has been no worse than third in four of the last five majors. Throw in the likes of Dustin Johnson, Nick Watney, Rory McIlroy and Paul Casey, and the smallest field of any major suddenly has a long list of contenders.
Some of that is a new generation arriving. Some of that is Woods no longer standing in their way.
“In the past, a lot of guys used up a lot of energy thinking about Tiger and what he’s doing. Now they’re doing their own thing and thinking about what they’re needing to do,” Faldo said. “There’s genuinely 20 guys who could win this. I’m hoping we have a dozen guys coming down the back nine Sunday with a shot.”
What had been considered a wide open Masters became slightly more narrow with Mickelson’s win last week in Houston. And while Woods has gone 17 months without a win, Nicklaus won’t rule him out.
“They both are going to play well,” Nicklaus said. “But there are other guys who will do the same.”
The names he mentioned all had one trait -- they hit the ball high and long, always a good combination at Augusta. But with a forecast for sunshine the rest of the week, which will make the course fast and firm and shorter than its 7,435 yards, there has been more talk about the short game than usual this week.
“You don’t have to be a big hitter to win here,” Mickelson said. “If you’re short game isn’t sharp, you really need to strike it exceptionally well. I don’t know if it’s really possible, because the penalty for a slight miss-hit is in an area where you have be on your short game. So anybody -- whether you are long or short -- if you’re on your short game, you have a good chance.”
Faldo mentioned Donald, who is one of a half-dozen players who can go to No. 1 with a win this week. Donald is at No. 4, and along with his win at the Match Play, he has finished out of the top 10 only twice over the last seven months.
“I’ve never felt more confident coming in here,” Donald said. “I’ve prepared well.”
“I’ve been very diligent in what I need to do. I’ve been hitting a lot of chips. Now I’ve just got to do it.”
As always, that’s always the hard part at the Masters.
Even as the No. 1 player in the world, Woods has gone five Masters without winning, the longest drought of his career. And while Mickelson looked as tough as ever to beat last week in Houston, this is Augusta.
“I find the golf course very intimidating,” Padraig Harrington said. “There’s a lot of pressure on the golf course. You can hit a good shot and make birdie, and hit a bad shot on the same hole and make double bogey. As much as I find it intimidating, I’ve got to believe it suits my game. I have a good short game, a good mental game. I like the idea it’s pressure.
“As much as I’m suffering, everyone else must be suffering, too.”