Much has been made about the impending assault on the world No. 1 world ranking at The Masters this week, and rightfully so: it's not often that six of the top seven players in the world have a legitimate shot to play King of the Hill amongst themselves, and they don't intend to disappoint.
That said, any number of things could blow up the favorite's chances at the Green Jacket. Golfers, forever tabbed as the unofficial founding fathers of superstition and idiosyncrasy, can shred even the toughest of courses in just-so conditions, but they're just as often victims of circumstance that hamper them into turning less-than-stellar scorecards. What might be the difference at Augusta this year? With the tournament facilities remaining constant year after year and the field always including all past winners, maybe one of the few things that really changes is the field itself.
Here's a sampling of quotes from this year's opening press conference and a few preview interviews that illustrates the atmosphere going into Thursday morning.
Tiger Woods/USA/No. 7
"Poulter's always right, isn't he?"
It's never bad idea to get the crowd going with a laugh or two, and Tiger certainly understands the importance of having the public on your side, maybe more now than he ever has before. When asked for his thoughts on a comment made by Ian Poulter (United Kingdom/No. 16) that Woods "wouldn't finish in the top five this year because [he hasn't] been showing enough consistency," Tiger merely turned the opinion on its head.
Indeed, after an ugly end to his final round in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, some would question whether or not Woods will make the cut Saturday.
Phil Mickelson/USA/No. 3
"Anybody, whether you're long or short, if your short game is sharp, I think you have a good chance."
So says Lefty. Guess who's ranked in the top ten in scrambling from the rough & approach distance from 50-75 yards away? Exactly. #Winning… However, as self-serving as that comment might seem, it's a pretty consistent refrain this week. Who's the best in that category, you ask? It might be this guy.
Ryo Ishikawa/Japan/No. 45
"I would like to emphasize the power and energy that sports can create for those people, to encourage them. It is my intention to play really well in order to encourage the people of Japan."
After every round, the 18th hole eventually dissolves into the mundane details of real life, but for some, the fact that the 18th even exists is more than enough to get out of bed every morning. Though it isn't really fair to force the hopes of his country upon him, Ishikawa certainly understands the importance of his performance as it relates to the morale of the Japanese population. If he's still around on Saturday, it'd be nothing short of sadistic NOT to root for him.
Martin Kaymer/Germany/No. 1
"If you play better golf, you deserve to be No. 1"
Such is Kaymer's belief, applied both to himself and to his competitors. Having won the most recent major tournament and opened 2011 with strong showings at the Match Play Championship (2nd) and the HSBC championship in Abu Dhabi (1st), Kaymer is definitely playing the best of any golfer in the world right now.
That said, it remains to be seen how he'll perform at Augusta or beyond - he recognizes that golf isn't all that life is made of, and though that may endear him to fans (this one included), it's not indicative of the kind of competitive drive traditionally thought to be requirement for staying power in the world's top athletes. We'll see, though—after all, he didn't get to the top by pure luck.
Jhonattan Vegas/Venezuela/No. 86
"It's pretty undulated, you don't really get to see that on TV much. The terrain moves a lot."
For lack of a better phrase, Vegas is a hot ticket right now. Having secured his first PGA victory at the Bob Hope Classic in January, the 26-year-old Venezuelan hopes his own trajectory at Augusta will not mimic the rollercoaster design of the course.
Rickie Fowler/USA/No. 32
"I've seen [the course] on [the EA Sports video game] Tiger Woods 2012 - it looks pretty good on there. I got to play as myself, so I've gotten a few holes in. I think I had birdie/eagle/birdie on Amen Corner."
Oh Rickie…if only your sport's target audience were males age 14 to 34, you'd have a killer fanbase! The fitted flat-brim hat, flashy colors and nonchalant tone might scream "I'm not really an adult yet," but that doesn't mean Fowler couldn't put together some solid rounds among the big boys this weekend. The Oklahoma State product will be tested off the tee (his driving accuracy is barely 50/50)—as a rookie, he should probably consider anything beyond making the cut as gravy.
At least he referred to the Golden Bear as "Mr. Nicklaus"—that will win him points with the duffers watching in their living rooms.
Lee Westwood/United Kingdom/No. 2
"There are a lot of flags out there that you just need to be patient on and play away from, be satisfied when you're 20-30 feet from the hole."
With four top-10 finishes already this year, Westwood appears at ease with his game and ready to take on Amen Corner, though that isn't the same as lacking the drive to win. He readily admitted that his foolishness in frequently attempting risky approach shots has cost him significant money in spots, and he knows he'll have to do better this week. Officially, the Brit's scrambling percentage ranks him 153rd in the world, which is a fairly poor showing for the overall No. 2—he'll need to be a bit more conservative if he wants to be successful in fighting off his own demons.