The time has finally come. It’s been eight months since the last major of 2016, but this week, every shot counts. The 2017 Masters field is set, and come Thursday, the mystery that is Augusta National will be enchanting us once again. Georgia native, and University of Georgia alum Russell Henley carded 10 final-round birdies in blustery, stormy conditions at the Shell Houston open to become the last official 2017 Masters qualifier, setting that most exclusive of fields at 94.
When Henley won in his first-ever PGA Tour appearance, at the 2013 Sony Open in Hawaii, it was apparent that great things were in store for the young gun. He would miss the cut in his first Masters appearance that year, when Adam Scott rode that gorgeous swing to victory, but steadily improved thereafter. He finished T-21 in 2015, but had to watch the Masters from outside the ropes like the mortals in 2016. One can only imagine the tingle in Henley’s spine as he gets set for his Thursday tee time at Augusta.
No doubt many golf fans were rooting for Stewart Cink after he finished the first round T-3 in Houston, but it was not to be. Cink is just returning to professional golf after taking a hiatus to be by his wife’s side as she battled breast cancer. Cink used the podium he was given to express how his wife’s determination had inspired him to take to practice with a renewed vigor, and it was evident in his play. Her fight continues, and Cink’s presence at the Masters would have been a fitting reward for them both. Alas, the game does not know a player’s backstory.
The air at Augusta National seems ripe for a battle of youth this year. The under-30 crowd has been putting on a show on the PGA Tour as of late. The oldest winners of full-points events so far in 2017 were Marc Leishman, 33, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and Dustin Johnson, 32, at practically everything else. All the other winners this year have been in their 20s, including recent victories by Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy. Fowler seems destined to earn his place among major champions, while McIlroy has demons to exorcise at Augusta. He is one Masters victory away from the career grand slam.
One can only hope the 2017 Masters is devoid of the type of debacle witnessed at the year’s first women’s major. Lexi Thompson was in a battle with final-group playing partner Suzann Pettersen on the back nine on Sunday at the ANA Inspiration, when word came down from tournament officials that she would be assessed a 4-stroke penalty for playing a ball from the wrong place on Saturday and signing an incorrect scorecard. The video evidence was as undeniable as it was trite. She fought her way back to a playoff, but lost in the end to would-be also-ran So Yeon Ryu. The smallest of infractions had cost her the biggest of tournaments.
The integrity of the game is stronger for the result, but its reputation is not. The scenario is reminiscent of Dustin Johnson’s mishap at the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straights, when he grounded his club in a “bunker.” Rules are rules, though, and at the Masters it almost always seems as if the right player wins.
The 2017 Masters offers 94 players a crack at immortality. For some, like McIlroy for instance, it is a new chance to correct past mistakes, one of many to come. For others, such as Ernie Els, the clock is ticking. Once upon a time, Els seemed as destined for a green jacket as did Jordan Spieth when he rocketed to stardom. The Big Easy may have had his shots, though. Lee Trevino, Hale Irwin, Johnny Miller and, most famously, Greg Norman all finished their careers minus a Masters win, and with the firepower the current youth brigade brings, the window for the grizzled veterans seems to be closing faster than ever. Glory awaits just one player on Sunday at the Masters, and it is often the one player we least suspect.