No sure bets on champion at Augusta

AUGUSTA National’s trademark back-nine drama in the final round of the Masters could reach epic heights on Sunday with a field that offers no clear favourite and several rising stars.

Rory McIlroy and defending champion Adam Scott squandered late leads last month to lose, while reigning British Open champion Phil Mickelson and Australian star Jason Day are coming off injuries.

World No 1 Tiger Woods will miss the Masters for the first time after surgery to fix a pinched nerve.

Mix in a record 24 first-time Masters starters and one of golf’s grandest stages is set for a showdown to decide the green jacket like few seen in recent times.

“To feel that energy and to hear the roars and be a part of what’s happening that final nine holes, it’s the greatest experience for a professional golfer,” three-times Masters winner Mickelson said.

While the absence of 14-times major champion Woods could dim the mystique for some, it is unlikely to steal the spotlight come Sunday afternoon.

“Having Tiger in a tournament definitely creates more buzz, more of an atmosphere,” McIlroy said. “But no matter who is in contention or who is going to win, the Masters always provides a great finish. There’s going to be a worthy winner and it’ll produce a lot of excitement whether Tiger is in the mix or not.”

McIlroy led the first three rounds in 2011 before a last-nine collapse left him sharing 15th, still his best finish at the Masters.

“I’d like to get into contention again and have a chance to win the tournament,” he said. “Any time you drive through the gates here, it sort of lights the fire up inside you.”

Leading contenders offered a wide range of choices for how many players they expected were true challengers for the title.

Mickelson said: “If the course plays firm and fast conditions, I think you’re looking at less than a dozen. But if it does not, I think you are looking at almost half the field.”

There have been 15 first-time major winners in the past 19 majors and 19 different winners in the past 21 majors, only McIlroy and Mickelson winning twice in that span.

Scott said as the era dominated by Woods had faded, a wider set of champions had emerged.

“There are a lot of guys with the talent and the form who are not necessarily standing out above others, but on their week, they are going to be tough to beat,” he said.

“There’s probably a list of 20 guys you could go through here, but if they play well, they are going to be there on Sunday at some point . . . I’d like to think [I am] one of those.”

Three players can dethrone Woods from atop the rankings this week. Day must win. Swedish world No 3 Henrik Stenson must finish in a two-way share of second or better and second-ranked Scott needs at least a two-way share of third.

Many of this year’s first-timers have said they see no reason one of them could not duplicate the 1979 feat of Fuzzy Zoeller to win in his first Augusta National start, the only man since the second Masters in 1935 to do so.

Stenson said: “Confident is good. But then, there’s always a chance there might be one or two surprises around the corner here.”

Scott is motivated to win, with the top ranking seen as a byproduct of success.

“I feel like my game is at a point where if I play well, I have a chance to win. And the follow-on from that would be world No 1.”

US Open champion Justin Rose likes his chances after his US Open win at Merion in June, putting himself with McIlroy and Spain’s Sergio Garcia atop Europe’s charge.

Rose said: “There are a lot of great players who are due . . . Rory and Sergio are probably the two Europeans who will have the best chance, along with myself.” – AFP