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Masters Preview: A Tradition Unlike Any Other

The Final Four has concluded. The college football season is long past. Major league baseball is far from becoming meaningful. What should the sports fan become obsessed with next? For me, the answer is easy: the Masters.

I grew up learning how to play golf. Just as in every other sport, children dream of winning the big one. Football stars want to throw the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. Basketball players want to hit the off balanced jumper to win the NBA finals. I wanted to do both of those. I have also always wanted to win the Masters.

It's a cliché but this one is actually true. The Masters truly is a tradition unlike any other. It is not our national championship. That would be the US Open. Augusta National is not the home of golf. That would be St. Andrew's. It is not even the most worldly of all the major championships. That would be the British Open. The Masters is the only major championship played at the same course year after year. I can easily recall every hole on the back nine and I have never set foot on the property.

The Masters is special for me, for the players, for golf fans, and for the game for a host of reasons. Augusta National has Amen Corner, the Eisenhower Pine, Rae's Creek, the Champion Dinner, the Par 3 Tournament, the caddie overalls, and so many other unique characteristics. Professionals dream of one day adorning a green jacket on Sunday afternoon. Many would rather win the Masters than any other tournament. Careers are made and solidified with a single victory at Augusta National.

I have watched the Masters for as long as I can remember. I was too young to remember any of Jack Nicklaus' six victories. Some of you probably recall his last major victory at Augusta in 1986. I do remember the dominance of Europeans like Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer, and Jose Maria Olazabal during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Who could forget former Longhorn Ben Crenshaw's emotional win in 1994 after the death of his mentor Harvey Penick just days earlier? Or Greg Norman's epic final round collapse in 1996? Or Tiger Woods' "hello world" victory in 1997? Or Phil Mickelson's putt at 18 in 2004 to secure his first major title? I log hours each year watching sporting events. The Masters may be my favorite of all.

The Course
Augusta National has undergone significant changes in recent years. The course will play to an all time long length of 7,455 yards this year. For you non golf fans, that is not an unheard of yardage but easily qualifies it as a long course. Since last year, 155 yards were added. Some players and commentators like the changes but most think the list of potential winners has shrunk even smaller. A short hitter is at a significant disadvantage this week. To win at Augusta, you must drive the ball long and straight, take advantage of the par 5s, and putt well. There is rough at Augusta National but it is nowhere near as penal as at most tournaments. The slickness of the greens is what really makes the Masters tough. Players have been known to practice putting on concrete in the weeks leading up to the tournament in an attempt to prepare for the speed of the greens. The player who can keep the ball below the hole, get up and down from around the green, and make everything inside ten feet will probably be your champion.

The Favorites
A list of favorites at most tournaments includes Tiger Woods. At Augusta, Tiger is the -only- one on the top tier. Woods has won four green jackets so far. Only Jack Nicklaus has claimed more. Tiger has been so dominant in recent years at the Masters that a legitimate question for bettors has been Tiger or everyone else in the field. That may be a bit of an overstatement but not by much.

Phil Mickelson is coming off his best performance in years. Mickelson won last week by an astounding 13 shots at the BellSouth Classic. Phil's record at Augusta is outstanding. He has finished in the top 10 in nine of the last 11 years. I expect him to fare well again this week.

David Toms is not as long as the previous two players but is maybe the top player in the world not named Tiger. He is a fantastic putter and has four top 10s in just eight starts this year. Toms has never won at Augusta but has the short game to make up for his lack of distance off the tee.

Other top tier players include Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen, Sergio Garcia, Chris DiMarco, Darren Clarke, and Adam Scott. Of that group, only Singh has ever won the Masters.

BON's Pick
Some people like to pick an underdog like David Howell. Some people like to pick a Longhorn like Justin Leonard. Some like to pick a sentimental choice like David Duval. Others may go with a newcomer like Adam Scott or Sean O'Hair. Not me. I will go with by far the best player in the world. No surprises here. BON picks Tiger Woods to claim his fifth green jacket.

My love for the Masters is undeniable. I cannot wait to sit in front of the TV and watch fantastic golf on a course that is unmatched anywhere in the world. I can't wait to hear about the beauty of the dogwoods and the azaleas or how spectators are somehow transformed into patrons as they cheer on their heroes. I can't wait to watch the most diabolical par three in golf (#12) feast on a player's dreams. I can't wait to watch the players' decisions to go for the green in two at 13 and 15.  I can't wait for Verne Lundquist to call a hole in one from the tower behind 16 or Jim Nantz imprint another one liner into golf's collective memory. There are amazing aspects of every sport, but the back nine on Sunday at the Masters is second to none.