Masters favourites take aim at Olympics
Top golfers at Augusta also eyeing Rio tournament
Almost 7,500 kilometers separate Augusta and Rio de Janeiro, but that distance will seem much shorter when action tees off at the Masters on Thursday.
That's because the favourite to win and pull on his first green jacket is Australian Jason Day, the current World No. 1, who also happens to be the reigning RBC Canadian Open champion and a player who is firmly committed to representing his country when golf returns to Olympic competition.
Glen Abbey was the scene of Day's triumph in Canada last year and he intends to defend the title at the same venue a few weeks before travelling to Brazil.
The 28-year-old's recent wins at the WGC-Match Play and at Arnold Palmer's tournament at Bay Hill pushed him past defending Masters champion Jordan Spieth back into the No. 1 ranking, a spot he held briefly last fall. It also pushes him ahead of a small pack of Masters favourites that includes countryman Adam Scott, American Spieth, and two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson, also of the U.S.
Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy, fully recovered from the off-course injury that compromised much of the second half of his 2015 season, is also in the mix, though his play in the first few months of 2016 has not been to his usual standard. A victory at Augusta will complete his personal career grand slam – all four major titles – and solidify his status as the most gifted player of the generation that has followed Tiger Woods.
With Rio four months away, the fivesome of Day, Spieth, McIlroy, Watson and Scott are also the top group to watch with the Olympics coming into view. Of course, those players also make up four of the top seven players in the world: Day on top, followed by Spieth in second, McIlroy third, Watson fourth and Scott at No. 7.
American Rickie Fowler is currently No. 5 and Swede Henrik Stenson is No. 6. Both are locks for spots in Rio.
The relationship between being favourites this week and in Rio in August goes beyond the world ranking. Like the Masters, the Olympic field will be limited. The Masters has 90 players taking part this week but in reality only about 70 of those players can make the cut, as few as 20 have a realistic chance of contending, and fewer still of winning. That's literally half the number of what the other major championships feature in terms of both players who can compete but also contend and win.
The Rio field will be limited to 60, with a ratio of legitimate contenders closer to the Masters rather than the much larger pool of players at the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship.
Beyond Day and Co., the hot money will follow both Fowler and Stenson, even if neither has been particularly adept at handling the nuances needed to master Augusta, pun intended.
A little farther down the list, Phil Mickelson is not a bad choice by any measure. He hasn't won at Augusta since 2010 but played well last year in tying for second, without seriously challenging Spieth. Lefty is back up to 18th in the world and will be gunning for a spot in Rio, afforded to the top four Americans, assuming all are inside the top 15 of the world ranking.
Canadian representation this week will be limited to Mike Weir. There is little reason to believe he can do anything more than perhaps make the cut, and even that could be a stretch given that the Canadian lefty hasn't done so in a regular PGA Tour event in the past 18 months.
Weir is in the field this year because he retains a lifetime exemption for winning the 2003 Masters. At present, Canadians Graham DeLaet, Adam Hadwin and David Hearn are bunched between 127 (DeLaet) and 188 (Hadwin) in the world ranking. That's good enough for two of those three Canadians to earn spots in Rio come July – the maximum allowable for countries with players outside the top 15 in the world – but well outside of earning a Masters invite.
Tom Watson will bid farewell to Augusta this week. The 66-year-old is a two-time Masters champ and eight-time major winner. To many younger golf viewers he will be remembered most for almost winning the Open Championship in 2009, just weeks before his 60th birthday. Watson missed a par-saving putt at the 72nd hole that would have clinched him the Claret Jug but later lost in a playoff to Stewart Cink.