March Madness is in full bloom right now in college basketball. It features surprising developments, buzzer-beating drama and Cinderella stories. It’s hard to imagine anything might compete with it for the sports community’s undivided attention.
And yet there’s this extraordinary season going on in golf right now. It features surprising developments, clock-reversing moments and Lazarus stories. It’s every bit as mad, every bit as compelling and every bit as big in the ratings. It’s Comeback Craziness.
You said that Tiger Woods wouldn’t play again? Don’t be silly. The 42-year-old is all over the leaderboards.
Phil Mickelson is done? Well, 47-year-old “Lefty” won the recent WGC-Mexico Championship.
Poor Rory McIlroy is dazed and confused? Not really. He buried Woods in Bay Hill birdies.
Any of you “stupid” Americans remember Paul Casey? At age 40, he won the Valspar, his first PGA Tour victory since 2009.
Have you seen Bubba Watson around? Why, yes. We saw him winning at Riviera last month and then again at the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play on Sunday.
Jason Day is AWOL? Check that. He was spotted at Torrey Pines in late January, then tied for second at Pebble Beach.
What have you done for me lately, Olympic champ Justin Rose? How about a victory and three other top-10s in his last six starts worldwide?
Listen, you want to get crazy? Let’s get crazy. The same week that Mickelson won in Mexico, Mr. Peabody’s WABAC Machine landed in Singapore, where Michelle Wie was a winner. So, when does Muhammad Ali fight George Foreman in Zaire?
More importantly, when does the Masters start?
If you are even a casual fan of golf, you can’t wait for next week’s first major championship of the season. Pool picks never have been more daunting, and golf never has been healthier. The most romantic championship in the game has been handed a most romantic screenplay.
It’s not just that all of our rowdy friends are back – and keep in mind that the reigning Masters champ is Sergio Garcia – but all of our new ones are around as well.
Justin Thomas has seven victories during the past 17 months, including a PGA Championship. Dustin Johnson is still No. 1 in the world and owns a victory this season. Rickie Fowler won an unofficial event in December. Jon Rahm won in January. The brainiac Bryson DeChambeau was second at Bay Hill. Here we’ve come all this way without even mentioning Jordan Spieth, who has 10 victories over the previous three years.
Count them up and there are 33 major championships in the crowd, including 11 green jackets.
Preliminary success doesn’t necessarily play at the Fruitlands, where the record often is ambivalent. But what history clearly demonstrates is that what happens in Augusta tends to happen again there. After all, it is the only major championship played on the same golf course year after year, golf’s version of riding a bicycle.
If you are able to do it well once, odds are that you can do it well again. Fred Couples has won the Masters once (1992). But he tied for third at the age of 46 and 17 times has finished in the top 15. In 1998, Jack Nicklaus nearly won a seventh green jacket at age 58.
That’s why Tiger Woods – a two-year absence notwithstanding – is the oddsmakers’ favorite one week before the Masters. In 18 professional strolls among the “patrons,” Woods has compiled four wins among 12 finishes of sixth or better. In 2015, a season in which he clearly was not right, he still managed a T-17 at Augusta.
But before you hitch your trailer to Woods’ comeback wagon, consider what four days of walking up and down hilly Augusta National can do to the fittest legs and backs. Consider that it has been 13 years since Woods won a Masters. Even when he still won, such as his five-victory 2013, he was not winning at Augusta.
And be sure to swallow a grain of statistical salt with the otherwise impressive return. That is, you can’t win the Masters hitting “stingers” and 3-woods. Accentuated on the 16th tee at Bay Hill, the driver remains a problem for Woods. He ranks 192nd in driving accuracy, 148th off the tee and 174th in greens in regulation. Those stats are not conducive to short putts and low scores at Augusta.
Then there is one more disclaimer, one that wreaks havoc with any prognostication: the weather. It has been especially erratic in the East this spring. If it’s rainy, if it’s windy, if it’s both … it’s a different ballgame and perhaps a different leaderboard.
So, Woods will be the favorite, an oldie-but-goodie storyline, but there are so many delicious possibilities to consider. McIlroy will be chasing a career Grand Slam once again; Spieth will be chasing the Masters mojo that he lost on Sunday in 2016; Mickelson will be trying to top Nicklaus’ victory at age 46; and Garcia will be bidding to become the first back-to-back winner since Woods in 2001-02. Remember, they’re rivals.
There are so many significant names and so many Masters conversations to be had … no one can predict what might happen. The only thing we know for certain is that Wie won’t win.
It’s Comeback Craziness, and it’s coming soon to Augusta.
Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @WWDOD