The heat will be on, quite literally, at Augusta National this week, with temperatures expected to reach 91 degrees Thursday during the opening round of The Masters, and in the mid-80s the rest of the weekend.
While the field of 98 players is one of the largest in recent memory, five names keep bubbling to the surface on Internet message boards, across the Twitter-verse and on every edition of Sportscenter. Love them or hate them, these are the five entrants who will have the most eyes on them throughout the weekend.
1. Rory McIlroy – It’s fitting that No. 1 be ranked first, yes? A win here completes his career Grand Slam at the tender age of 25 (he’ll be 26 in early May) and would give him three straight Major victories, something no man has done since Tiger Woods took four straight between 2000 and 2001. Last year’s tie for eighth was McIlroy’s best-ever at Augusta, and his most memorable moment at The Masters is a terrible one – the worst round in history by a golfer leading after the third round of the Masters when he fired a god-awful 80 to blow it in 2011.
2. Bubba Watson – He’s not only the defending champion, he’s won twice in three years. Another victory here would make him the first repeat champion since Woods in 2001-2002, and the only man besides Jack Nicklaus (1963, 1965, 1966) to win three in four years. That’ll help him feel better about the poll saying guys wouldn’t help him if they saw him in a fight in the parking lot.
3. Jordan Spieth – There’s only one place to go when you finished second last year, but it’s certainly not beyond the capacity of the most exciting young golfer to come on screen since … well, Rory McIlroy. Spieth is playing exceptionally well right now, as his run through Texas and win at Valspar have shown. He’s yet to show any nerves under pressure, but Augusta has a way of finding all your weak points.
4. Phil Mickelson – He finally perked up a bit in Houston after a sluggish start to the season, and you simply can’t count out the guy who’s won three Masters titles – albeit only in even-numbered years. His wins here are often unfairly overshadowed by his near misses at the US Open (six second-places and counting) but another victory at Augusta would tie him with Tiger Woods for second all-time with four and move his Major total count up to six – tying him with a couple of no-names named Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo.
5. Tiger Woods – You knew it was coming, I knew it was coming. He hasn’t played in two months, he hasn’t won in two years, he hasn’t taken a Major in seven and he hasn’t won at Augusta in 10. And yet, there it is. He looked sharp in his Monday practice round and relaxed during the Par 3 Contest on Wednesday. His odds to win have dropped by exactly half, from 50-to-1 a week ago to 25-to-1 today.