AUGUSTA, Ga. — The echoes amid the pines at Augusta National provided evidence Wednesday that the excitement of the 78th Masters was kicking up. The annual par-three tournament produced its usual crowd-pleasing theatrics — from the aces delivered by Matt Jones, Buddy Alexander and Mark O'Meara to the dialed-in, six-birdie victory claimed by Ryan Moore.
But the serious business begins Thursday with 97 players teeing it up and many eager to see just how wide open the doors to contending will be.
Finding an obvious favorite seems as difficult as ever, particularly with the absence of the world No. 1 Tiger Woods. Two-time major champion Rory McIlroy, ranked No. 9, was asked how many players have a legitimate shot at winning.
"I would say 70," McIlroy said. "There's a few past champions who play that might not be able to compete. There might be a few first-timers or a few amateurs that won't compete. But then you've got the rest."
So, yeah, it would be wise to keep a close eye on Adam Scott, the defending champion and current Las Vegas favorite.
And watch out for Henrik Stenson, No. 3 in the world and confident with his game.
But don't overlook Jason Day or Dustin Johnson or Matt Kuchar or, well, about five dozen other players who could make serious noise over the next four days.
A Tiger-less Masters — the first since 1994 — may lack some of the usual juice for TV ratings and casual fans, but it shouldn't be void of Augusta's trademark roars and weekend drama.
Reigning U.S. Open champion Justin Rose squeezed McIlroy's contender estimate, surmising there's a group of 15 players he would call "pretty strong favorites," a list Rose said had to include McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia.
You also have to believe Phil Mickelson registers on that radar. And as Mickelson pushes to join Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Woods as the only players with at least four green jackets (Nicklaus has six), he's a credible source for how things might unfold.
So just how wide open is it this week?
Mickelson said it would depend on the firmness and speed of the course, noting Tuesday that the greens were "getting back to Masters speed" after rain and thunderstorms Monday.
And if that persists, he noted, the class of potential victors shrinks significantly, to less than a dozen.
"Because if that happens," Mickelson said, "the subtleties and the nuances and the penalty of Augusta National will come through."
Across the board, players assert that Masters first-timers — numbering two dozen this year — will face a greater challenge acclimating to the awe, pressure and intricacies of the course.
By the same token, Mickelson said, previous Masters winners — he's one of nine in the field under 45 — gain a greater serenity for handling the week's roller coaster.
At least that was the case for Mickelson after his breakthrough win in 2004. Each subsequent trip to the Masters found him far more at ease.
"Unequivocally, yes," Mickelson said. "Absolutely. Because you want it as a player and as a kid growing up so bad to win the Masters and to be part of the history here that sometimes you get in your own way.
"Sometimes you force things when you shouldn't. Sometimes your mind goes where it shouldn't and starts seeing what you don't want to have happen. And it's sometimes difficult to control your own thoughts."
Finding peace of mind, along with control off the tee and around the greens, seems a prerequisite to winning. But as the tournament begins, the doorstep for potential contenders seems plenty crowded.
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