Masters more than a two-horse race
Not even the continued bigotry of the Augusta National could possibly sour the 76th Masters. There are simply too many storylines to allow the archaic attitudes of these most privileged of memberships to spoil what is promising to be golf's greatest party. Fortunately, come Sunday evening, a man worthy of the respect will be dressed in green.
Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson. These are the five principal protagonists in a cast list for an award-winning drama. All are in form and all should be in consideration. If you're looking for a two-horse race, buy the Racing Post.
Of course, the spotlight falls on Woods and McIlroy. The old master versus the young master, the past versus the future, the phenomenon versus the prodigy, the probability versus the possibility. The thought of the pair battling it out down the stretch is just too delicious not to envisage. It's eminently feasible, as well. If Woods displays the same assured putting touch which led him to his comeback win at Bay Hill two weeks ago, then he will, at the very least, be in contention.
Meanwhile, McIlroy has been on such a run these last eight months – finishing out of the top 10 just once – that it is hard to foresee anything less than a podium place at the venue where, just 12 months ago, he capitulated so spectacularly. The likelihood is Woods and McIlroy will be in the mix, but the mix will be thick. Expect at least six to have the scent in their nostrils on the back nine.
The field is deep. Charl Schwartzel is good enough to retain the title. Geoff Ogilvy is a green-jacketer in waiting. Justin Rose, Hunter Mahan, Adam Scott, Steve Stricker, Bubba Watson... the candidate call goes on. Golf's holy trinity – Palmer, Player and Nicklaus – will tee off proceedings at 7.40am as ceremonial starters and should look at the number of potential winners and compare it to their day. Thanks in large part to technology, there are so many more possibilities now. The great confluence has triggered a frenzy of anticipation.
As you walk through the azalea-lined corridors of sumptuous green and so everyone discusses their fancies. "I have a hunch for Rory and Lee, just because the golf course is soft, it's going to play extremely long and it will heavily favour someone who hits the ball high," said Jose Maria Olazabal, the last European to win the Masters way back in 1999. "But I certainly wouldn't discount Luke. I can see some similarities with myself in the way he plays, although he is a straighter driver than I ever was. His short-game is a thing of beauty. You look at his stats from 100 yards in and they are off the charts."
Donald, the world No 1, has taken the mantle of "game's best short-game" from Mickelson and when one considers that Mickelson has won three of the last seven Masters, the Englishman's challenge is obvious. Yet does he possess the long-game to go really low at a rain-sodden Augusta? Because that is what he will need to do with these dartboard greens. "As soft as the golf course is, you can fire at a lot of the pins," said Mickelson. "It's just not the same Augusta. It's wet around the greens, and there's no fear of the course. You've got to attack it this week. Unless something changes, it's going to be a birdie-fest."
That brings as many as 40 players into the equation. Anybody who makes the cut will have an opportunity. "If you are in, you are never out of it here," said Ian Poulter, part of a strong group trying to redress the English void which runs to 16 years of majors. "You see it all the time at this place – someone shoots a score on Saturday and hurtles up that board. It will be congested.
"Look at last year. Seven people had the lead at some stage on the Sunday, and no one has ever birdied the last four before to win. Had Charl not done that, how many others would have had a chance? You're talking a lot of people. Yeah, Rory has got a great chance – it is a perfect course for his type of game. You would expect him to be in position. Tiger won two weeks ago and he loves this course. Yet it's never a two-horse race, is it? People can talk only about two people, but it doesn't matter. We will all do our bit and see what happens."
Get ready for a white-knuckle ride, golf's version of the cannonball run. A personal fancy is for Mickelson to make it four from eight and confirm himself as the National's great specialist. The left-hander is the sport's premier entertainer and if one thing is certain at Augusta it is that it shall be entertaining. That and the fact that discrimination still reigns, of course.
The gender issue was always destined to blow up after IBM appointed Ginni Rometty as their first female CEO. The Masters traditionally invites the CEO of IBM to join the club. It was a legitimate question to ask if they will extend the same courtesy to Ms Rometty and finally, after 79 years, they would welcome their first woman member .
Billy Payne would not answer. The chairman sat there through his press conference with a stern face and a shameless conviction. "We do not talk about our private deliberations," he replied, over and over as the queries of sexism rained down. Payne showed breathtaking hypocrisy when outlining his concerns at the shrinking participation levels in the sport. Meanwhile, his club exclude half the human race. How's that for helping growth?
It is a debate they will not enter. Instead they will focus on their tournament and what a tournament it will be. The one problem may be mud-balls because of all the storms which dared to wash out a few bunkers and bring down a tree. Will the greenjackets consider allowing the competitors to lift, clean and place? They have never before, but Chairman Payne admitted that they would consider what their predecessors would consider sacrilege.
Extraordinary. If that's on the table then a woman can't be far behind. If only.
Why Westwood and his caddie have the Masters in the bag
Lee Westwood hardly needs to add any more substance to his claims for a first Green Jacket, but an omen has emerged which is as spooky as it is positive. The Englishman's caddie has been handed the magic bib.
The bagmen of the winners of the last three Masters to finish on Easter Sunday have all carried the number 53. The numbers, issued randomly, are emblazoned on the caddies' white tunics in Masters green. It was first carried to victory for Phil Mickelson in 2004, then Zach Johnson (2007) and Angel Cabrera (2009). Now it is the turn of Westwood – and Billy Foster.
"I didn't have a clue that this was such a lucky number," the Yorkshire caddie said. "We'd better do our best to keep the sequence going, then."
Foster is confident for other reasons, of course. "Lee's hitting the ball lovely at the moment so you've got to give him a big chance. If fate decided to lend a helping hand, that would be nice. I'm not particularly superstitious and neither is Lee – but that could change if he slips on the green jacket on Sunday!"
Foster could do with a lucky break in the majors. Despite caddying for the likes of Seve Ballesteros and Darren Clarke, he has yet to "win" one of the big four, but he thinks this could be the year. Since he linked up with Foster in 2009, Westwood has racked up five top-three finishes in majors. During this time, the pair have won eight times and Westwood has reigned as world No 1. Everybody knows what is missing from his CV.
"We all know Lee's got the game to do it from the way he played two years ago, when he was runner-up to Phil [Micke-lson]," said Foster. "Lee played the course beautifully. His score would have been good enough to win most years. We just came up against someone playing out of his skin.
"I've had some great bags during my career, and caddied for a couple of major winners in Seve and Darren – but not when they won their majors.
"It's been a long wait [for me and a major]. I've been caddying for 30 years now, and it's about time I saw my man win one of the big ones."
Three to watch: Corrigan's tips
Safe bet: Phil Mickelson
How can a player who has finished in the top five eight times in the last 11 Masters be 12-1? Mickleson has won three times in the last seven. He's the Augusta specialist. It's hilarious that all the talk is about two men. At this major, Mickelson's the man.
Each-way: Webb Simpson
With all the anticipation, it's almost a given that an unknown American will come late and spoil the Sunday party. This is his debut, but first came here as a 12-year-old and shot 80. Great putter, who almost denied Luke Donald the US money list last year. Good odds.
Outsider: Paul Casey
Has had a torrid year of injury and personal strife, but has turned the dogleg and is confident. Casey has the high ball-flight and touch which is suited to Augusta, as he proved by finishing sixth on debut. There are more in-form Brits but none with more talent.
Selected tee-off times; all players US unless stated; all times BST
13.45 Adam Scott (Aus), Bo Van Pelt, Martin Kaymer (Ger)
14.29 Trevor Immelman (SA), Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose (Eng)
15.24 Charl Schwartzel (SA), Keegan Bradley, Kelly Kraft
15.35 Tiger Woods, Miguel Angel Jimenez (Sp), Sang-moon Bae (Kor)
15.46 Francesco Molinari (It), Luke Donald (Eng), Nick Watney
16.41 Louis Oosthuizen (SA), Mark Wilson, Graeme McDowell (NIrl)
16.51 Ian Poulter (Eng), Patrick Cantlay, Zach Johnson
17.25 Jonathan Byrd, Paul Casey (Eng), John Senden (Aus)
17.58 Vijay Singh (Fij), Jim Furyk, Lee Westwood (Eng)
18.20 Fred Couples, Ryo Ishikawa (Jpn), Darren Clarke (NIrl)
18.42 Angel Cabrera (Arg), Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy (NIrl)
18.53 Hunter Mahan, Peter Hanson (Swe), Phil Mickelson