Masters 2018: Are we building towards an all-time event at Augusta National?
The biggest names will all likely contend ... and those aren't even the best storylines
Jump ahead in time with me to 34 days from now when the final round of the 2018 Masters will start. Imagine where you'll be sitting, how you'll be watching, what you'll be doing. Conjure up what you want to see as CBS comes on the air. Picture your ideal leaderboard, who's on it and what the scores look like.
But first, think about how stoked you were for Phil Mickelson to play in the final group with Tyrrell Hatton and Shubhankar Sharma at the WGC-Mexico Championship and how much that excitement was exacerbated by Justin Thomas' eagle on the 72nd hole. Envision Mickelson chumming it up with CEO of the event on his 73rd hole, minutes before his five-year winning drought would end, and think about what he did to get there.
Now multiply that excitement by what we've seen throughout this year -- Jon Rahm's sixth gear, Justin Thomas' ridiculous theatrics, Bubba Watson hitting dizzying shots all over southern California, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson hitting the accelerator, Tommy Fleetwood repeating -- and you'll land where I'm landing when I think of what 34 days from now could be like: complete and total euphoria.
I haven't even mentioned Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth yet.
Think of the permutations. Think of last year when we got two European stars who are not necessarily the most marketable entities in the United States. Think of what a unadulterated thrill that back nine was for patrons. And think of what it could be come five weeks from last Sunday.
We have longed for the heads of generations -- notably Woods and McIlroy -- to clash for so long, I think we forgot about what else was out there. Mickelson and Thomas going heads-up in Mexico for a big boy trophy reminded me that there are other potentially great matchups between the group exiting stage right and the group still tuning the guitar.
One of the sort of dirty secrets of the Masters in recent years is that we have rarely seen true heavyweight bouts for the jacket. There has been no Mickelson-Henrik Stenson dual at Royal Troon. There has been no D.J.-Spieth roundabout at Chambers Bay. There has been no Mickelson-McIlroy-Rickie Fowler brawl at Valhalla.
Yes, last year was awesome (and will be historically underrated), but before that you have to do a little traveling to find another great sword fight at Augusta National. Spieth vs. Bubba Watson in 2014 was terrific, and Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera in 2013 was strong, but you probably have to go all the way back to 2004 to find a true icon-on-icon tussle. Mickelson shot 31 on the back nine that year to clip Ernie Els by one. The climax of that tournament is now a logo on Mickelson's belt buckle.
This year, though, well this years has the makings of something tremendous. We get all the trappings of a normal major with two key ingredients that many Masters (especially recently) have lacked. Elder statesmen Mickelson and Woods trying to rekindle something special. Two all-timers trying to remember what it feels like to have all the Masters you could possibly want in front of you and the possibility that you could win them all still in play. There is nothing in all of sports as dramatic or compelling as that narrative. And now we get it with an even deeper generation trying to take it away from them. Mickelson is playing some of the best golf of his career (his words), and Tiger is twirling irons like it's 2001.
"Well, certainly the U.S. Open is always on my mind, but it's not something I'll think about until after the Masters," said Mickelson after winning the 43rd event of his career on Sunday. "It's important I think to have a win in a tournament, especially a big tournament like a World Golf Championship before the majors because you don't want to feel that type of pressure coming down the stretch of a major having not won in a while."
Their presence at Augusta -- when in good form -- exponentially raises the bar on what we could see. The possibilities are so tantalizing, I can't even choose. I feel like my kids would feel walking into Bubba's candy store and being handed a $100 voucher.
Mickelson facing anyone down the back nine of an event is always immense. He was paired with somebody on Sunday whose name I still cannot pronounce and was ranked outside the top 400 in the world a few months ago, and I was more riveted than Zach Johnson at a corn-shucking convention.
What if we get a Mickelson-McIlroy redux? Run it back from the 2014 PGA Championship. What if D.J. starts galloping on Sunday afternoon with Thomas and Rahm keeping pace. What if -- pausing to pray to TV rating Gods for a blessing -- Woods and Spieth go to a playoff? Hell, what if Mickelson and Woods are paired together in the final twosome on Sunday? What if Thomas and Spieth (!) start throwing bows at each other? What if Fowler and McIlroy are in the pairing in front of them? What if Sergio Garcia is in a position to repeat?
I don't know what to do with my hands!
The possibilities are as innumerable as the Hall of Famers in this year's event, and while you can say this about most majors in this era, I'm not sure there's ever been more real momentum heading into a Masters in recent memory. If any of McIlroy, Fowler and Spieth somehow win over the next four weeks leading up to Augusta, Jim Nantz is going to have to wear a fire-retardant suit the entire week of the event.
It's no secret that the logic of circumstances leads us to the fact that when there are more tremendous storylines there is a higher percentage that multiples of those will converge in golf's cathedral that first week in April. But the flip side of that is that, if we don't get something truly special or if we get Danny Willett Part II, the disappointment will linger until the U.S. Open at Shinnecock in June.
But we have to get something great, right? We'll only have five or so Masters like this one. Maybe more. Maybe fewer. But only around five that include so resplendent a future, most dead in the center of their primes, intersecting two proud and immortal (in this golf world) lions like Tiger and Phil.
Maybe it will never play out like we want, either. Maybe Francesco Molinari will win the Masters, and we will all move on with our lives. But maybe, just maybe, we'll get our 2006 USC-Texas Rose Bowl this year. Maybe we'll get The One they'll always show when Golf Channel needs an old Masters to run back in the middle of November. Maybe for one week Tiger and Phil and Spieth and Rory and Rahm and Rickie and D.J. and J.T. will all be feeling it. Maybe we'll get the greatest Masters of all-time.
And in golf, as many of these guys have shown us, maybe is often all you need.
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