AUGUSTA, Ga. – Defending the Masters is no easy feat. In fact, in the 79 previous Masters, that trick has only been turned three times – by Tiger Woods (2001–02), Nick Faldo (1989–1990) and Jack Nicklaus (1965–66).
But that doesn’t mean Jordan Spieth isn’t up for the challenge.
"Sure, I’m putting pressure on myself to contend this year, just like last year. And I feel like I’m in form as well," Spieth said. "But it’s also going to be a lot of fun walking these fairways, reliving those memories with the crowds and the roars and the echoes."
There were a lot of those roars for the 22-year-old in 2015, as he cruised to a four-shot victory. He led after every round, and his -18 (270) score tied Tiger Woods for the lowest in Masters history.
Although Spieth started 2016 with a victory in Hawaii, he’s been struggling the last few weeks. He admits he’s been a little "off" going into tournaments. He’s trying to adjust his approach this week, and he said there’s no better place for him to do just that than here.
"We’re just going to go ahead and play what I consider my favourite course in the world," he explained. "I hope I get off to a good start. If I don’t, then I’m going to have to reach down deep and really stay patient and let birdies come to me."
Spieth returns to the hallowed Augusta National grounds not the favourite. And that’s OK with him, he said.
"Isn’t Jason [Day] the favourite?" he asked assembled media. "Nice. He can be the favourite, I’ll go ahead and just do my thing."
Jason Day, the 28-year-old Australian, is the most recent major champion. He won the 2015 PGA Championship by three over Spieth, already has two wins to his name this season, and is indeed the betting favourite (according to GolfOdds.com, he’s 13/2, while Spieth is 8/1).
But Day isn’t calling it yet.
"To be honest, I don’t think I’m the favourite this week," he said. "There’s a lot of people out there that can play well and win. There are so many players that can win around here. I think it’s good for the game of golf, and I think it’s good for this tournament as well."
Will the real Masters favourite please stand up?
Queue Rory McIlroy.
The four-time major champion is going for the career Grand Slam this week – as he will continue to do for every Masters until he reaches that milestone – and, after skipping the Par-3 Contest, he’s more focused this year than he has been in the past.
"I feel like I’ve got everything I need to become a Masters Champion," McIlroy said. "I think each and every year that passes that I don’t, it will become increasingly more difficult. So there’s no time like the present to get it done."
He nearly did five years ago, leading by four in 2011 going in to the final round. But a Sunday round of 8-over-par 80 derailed his chances (that said, he went on to win the U.S. Open in record-setting fashion later that summer).
He’s finished in the top-25 five times out of the seven he’s played the tournament – a lone missed cut in 2010 the only blemish – and explained he’s not under pressure this week.
"Someone once told me pressure is for tires," McIlroy said. "I get this course is well suited for me. I know that. I don’t need anyone to tell me that."
Even with the triumvirate of Spieth, Day, and McIlroy looking like they are primed for a major battle, one doesn’t need to look much further for other contenders.
Adam Scott, the 2014 Masters Champion, has two wins already this PGA Tour Season. Phil Mickelson has been playing great golf of late, and the three-time Masters winner is always a threat here. Bubba Watson has a PGA Tour win this year, and is a two-time Masters champ. Justin Rose and Louis Oosthuizen want another major. Rickie Fowler, Patrick Reed and Dustin Johnson want their first.
Spieth is defending, and many – the best in the world, in fact – are chasing.
The Masters begins Thursday. Time to get to work.
Nine golfers made hole-in-ones during the Par-3 Contest Wednesday including Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler on back-to-back swings… 80-year-old Gary Player made one as well… No Par-3 Contest winner has ever gone on to win the Masters itself… Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus will hit the ceremonial opening tee-shots Thursday, while Arnold Palmer will be there (but won’t hit one)… Tiger Woods said on Twitter Jordan Spieth’s Champion’s Dinner of Texas BBQ was "unreal"… My pick to win this week: Rory McIlroy, My dark horse: Justin Thomas