When the NCAA tournament concludes Monday night, the "tradition unlike any other" quickly moves to center stage of the sports world as The Masters returns to Augusta National for the 76th time.
With Tiger Woods once again the favorite to win golf's first major of the season, it almost seems like old times. Woods' recent victory at Bay Hill featured a level of dominance that, for some, went a long way toward erasing the bad memories of Tiger's 30-month scandal-induced winless stretch. Even Tiger's TV ratings were dominant, crushing the NCAA tournament on Sunday, March 25.
As much as Woods would like to win his fifth Masters and 15th major overall, there's one man who'd love to win it just as much: three-time John Deere Classic defending champion Steve Stricker.
Now 45, Stricker has accomplished more in the game than several other players who've stumbled into winning a major then faded from the scene. Stricker's an 11-time winner on the PGA Tour, including a victory in this year's season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. An out-of-this-world putter, the University of Illinois product has been a stalwart on two Ryder Cup and four Presidents Cup teams. He won the Comeback Player of the Year Award in consecutive years, having lost his game and rebuilt it from the ground up. And, for good measure, he contributed to Tiger's comeback by helping him with his putting stroke.
Does Stricker have a chance at Augusta? Jack Nicklaus won his sixth Masters at age 46 and remains the oldest Masters champion, so age may not be a factor. Meanwhile, in only five events this year, Stricker has one win, three top 10 finishes, and more than $1.5 million in official earnings. He has made 46 consecutive cuts, No. 1 on Tour, and is ranked the No. 1 golfer in the world in the Sagarin golf rankings. So, who's to say he can't win? Did anyone predict Charl Swartzel (2011), Angel Cabrera (2009), Trevor Immelman (2008) or Zach Johnson (2007)? It's doubtful the oddsmakers, golf scribes, or Golf Channel talking heads even mentioned their names much less predicted victories.
In addition to Tiger, this week's Augusta National favorites include Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood. Which doesn't mean they'll win. Predicting the Masters is like handicapping the Kentucky Derby or the Indy 500 -- the favorites often are left in the dust.
Whoever wins this year's Masters will do so against what is traditionally the weakest field among the four majors. With only 97 invitees, the Masters' field is about one-third the size of the PGA Championship and the Players, both of which feature 156 players and are consistently ranked as the strongest fields among golf's big events. Plus, The Masters' field is further diminished, because it always includes a handful of non-competitive past champions, amateurs, and international players from smaller tours around the world. This year, figure about 82 players actually could compete for the green jacket - and that number's generous.
So, Stricker could be in the mix. He finished 11th last year at 5-under par. His sixth place finish in 2009 was his best in 11 starts. He seldom misses a fairway and few are better on or around the greens.
Other John Deere Classic past champions competing in this year's Masters are Jonathan Byrd (2007), John Senden (2006), Sean O'Hair (2005), Vijay Singh (2003), who won the Masters in 2000, and David Toms (1997). Good luck to them all!