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The Masters is back in its right place — and a Canadian has a puncher's chance

CBC Sports' daily newsletter previews the Masters, which returns to its traditional springtime slot and features a potential Canadian contender.

Corey Conners could contend after tying for 10th last fall

Canada's Corey Conners has the game to contend at Augusta. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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The Masters is back where it belongs

Golf's most prestigious tournament was bumped to November last year because of the pandemic, and it wasn't the same. Augusta National looked different, played different and just generally had a less-satisfying vibe in the fall — especially with no fans allowed on the course.

But everything we simultaneously love and love to make fun of about the Masters and the way it's presented — the iconic holes, the impossible landscaping, the over-the-top reverence, the tinkling piano music — is all back in its traditional springtime slot. Well, almost all of it. Only a "limited" number of patrons (Augusta-speak for fans) are being granted entry, and the popular Wednesday Par 3 Contest was cancelled. Otherwise, though, it'll be a pretty traditional Masters.

Here's a look at some of the key players competing for the green jacket starting Thursday:

Dustin Johnson is the favourite. The 36-year-old American won his first green jacket (and second major title) in November by shooting the lowest score in Masters history — a 20-under 268. Sure, the course played softer in the fall and scores were down across the board. But Johnson produced a truly dominant performance, winning by five strokes. He's currently the No. 1-ranked player in the world and the betting favourite to repeat as Masters champion. If he does, DJ will join Jack Nicklaus (1965, '66), Nick Faldo ('89, '90) and Tiger Woods (2001, '02) as the only players to win back-to-back green jackets.

Bryson DeChambeau is the wild card. The most interesting man in golf is always worth watching because he's the longest player on tour and the most aggressive. DeChambeau riled some of Augusta's stuffed blazers last year when he said he was treating their hallowed par-72 course as a par-67. He wound up shooting only 2-under for the tournament — tied for 34th. But the 27-year-old American's monster drives and willingness to try anything make him potentially golf's most disruptive force since a young Tiger Woods.

Jordan Spieth is back. When he won the 2017 British Open shortly before his 24th birthday, it looked like Spieth was on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats. The 2015 Masters and U.S. Open champion now owned the three most respected major titles and had already won 11 tournaments in just five years on the PGA Tour. But that victory at Royal Birkdale would turn out to be his last for nearly four years. The former world No. 1 even dropped as low as 92nd earlier this year. But something must have clicked because, since then, Spieth has five top-10 finishes in seven starts, and he snapped his victory drought Sunday by winning the Valero Texas Open. Suddenly, Spieth is a top-five betting favourite for the Masters, which he won in 2015 and has finished third or better in four times.

A Canadian has a puncher's chance. Corey Conners is about a 90/1 longshot at the more respected online books. But he might have what it takes to become Canada's first green jacket winner since Mike Weir in 2003. Somewhat ironically, considering its manicured beauty and the soft touch needed on its tricky greens, Augusta is a bomber's track. It favours big hitters more than most courses. Conners isn't super long, but the 29-year-old from Listowel, Ont., has been above average in driving distance over the last few years, and this season he ranks 10th in strokes gained off the tee — a stat that measures the overall quality of all tee shots. Other encouraging signs: Conners tied for 10th at last year's Masters, and he's playing really well right now. Over the last month, he finished third at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and seventh at the high-end Players Championship. Conners is 43rd in the official world rankings — eight spots above Mackenzie Hughes, the only other Canadian with a legitimate hope of contending this week. But the more-astute Data Golf model puts him 16th. So don't be surprised if Conners is in the hunt this weekend.

Bryson DeChambeau is capable of overpowering Augusta with his length off the tee and go-for-broke approach. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Quickly...

North Korea says it's pulling out of the Tokyo Olympics over COVID-19 concerns. It's always tough to get a handle on the dictatorship's true motives, but a website run by North Korea's sports ministry said the decision was made to protect athletes from a "world public health crisis caused by COVID-19." The South Korean government expressed disappointment, saying it had hoped the Tokyo Games would be another opportunity to improve relations with its neighbour. At the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, athletes from the North and South marched into the opening ceremony together and the two countries entered a joint team in the women's hockey tournament. Since then, their relationship has cooled. Read more about North Korea's decision to skip the Olympics and the current state of its relations with South Korea here.

Baylor ruined Gonzaga's perfect season. The Zags' bid to become the first undefeated NCAA men's basketball champion in 45 years crashed and burned last night with an 86-70 rout by Baylor in the tournament final. It was the lowest point total of the season for Gonzaga (31-1), which averaged an NCAA-best 91.6. Star freshman Jalen Suggs scored a team-high 22 points for Gonzaga after hitting that instantly iconic buzzer beater from just inside the halfcourt logo to win Saturday's semifinal vs. UCLA. He's expected to declare for this year's NBA draft and be among the top picks. Read more about the sour end to Gonzaga's season here.

The NHL's Canadian division is dealing with its first big crisis. All the major COVID-19 outbreaks in the first couple of months of the season happened on U.S.-based teams. But with vaccinations now proceeding much faster in that country while Canada experiences a troubling rise in cases and hospitalizations, the tables have turned. Seventeen of the 22 players on the Vancouver Canucks' active roster are now on the COVID-19 protocol list, meaning they've either tested positive or had close contact with someone who did. Four Vancouver games have already been postponed, and it appears the team will be out at least through the end of the week. This is throwing the North Division schedule out of whack, but NHL deputy commissioner insists the Canucks will be able to complete their full 56-game season. Read more about Vancouver's situation here.

And finally...

This photo of a baseball crowd was taken yesterday, on planet Earth:

(Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

If you've engaged with any Americans over the past few weeks — in real life, on social media, listening to a podcast, or wherever — you've probably been struck by the feeling that we're living in two different worlds. On this side of the border, we're doing virtual Easters, debating whether to keep our kids in school and hoping our parents and grandparents can get vaccinated soon. Down there, they're posting second-dose selfies, going on trips and having family gatherings. But nothing illustrated the divide quite like yesterday's Blue Jays-Rangers game at Whatever Corporate Name Field in Arlington, Tex. It was played in front of an announced sellout crowd of 38,238. Judging by the photo, that's considerably higher than the number of people who took the mask "requirement" seriously. Read more about the jarring crowd and the game here.

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