West Coast Swing whets appetite for Augusta
LOS ANGELES (AP) The refrain is becoming a tradition unlike any other, especially after a West Coast Swing like this one.
''The Masters can't get here soon enough.''
No doubt, the Masters is the most anticipated tournament of the year. But that would be overlooking the obvious. Golf fans get excited about Augusta National no matter who is winning because it's the first major championship in eight months and because, well, it's the Masters.
What the West Coast Swing showed is that it's getting more crowded than ever at the top, and it's getting tougher to find a clear-cut favorite.
Five of the seven PGA Tour winners this year are among the top 10 in the world. That includes Dustin Johnson, the new No. 1. That does not include Sergio Garcia, who won the Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour.
As the PGA Tour heads to Florida, the Westgate Las Vegas Sportsbook lists Jordan Spieth as a narrow favorite (13-2 odds) over Johnson (8-1) to win the Masters, with Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Hideki Matsuyama lined up behind them.
Spieth would be a leading candidate because of his four-shot victory at Pebble Beach two weeks ago, and because he has never finished worse than runner-up in his three appearances at Augusta National.
As for Johnson?
He reached No. 1 on Sunday by winning at Riviera , but equally impressive is his two-year body of work - five victories (including the U.S. Open), four runner-up finishes and 60 percent of his finishes in the top 10.
Matsuyama was asked in late October after his seven-shot victory in the HSBC Champions if he wished the Masters was the following week. His playoff victory in Phoenix earlier this month only raised expectations of becoming the first Asian-born player in a green jacket.
Justin Thomas almost feels like old news. It's easy to forget that he not only swept the Hawaii swing, he won them by a combined 10 shots and shot a 59 at the Sony Open while setting a record for the lowest 72-hole score (253) in PGA Tour history.
And remember, there are still six more tournaments to go before the Masters.
How tough is it getting? Spieth started the year at No. 5 in the world. He tied for third at Kapalua, finished third at the Sony Open, tied for ninth in the Phoenix Open and won at Pebble Beach. And now he's No. 6.
''Awesome West Coast Swing,'' Spieth said after he tied for 22nd at the Genesis Open. It was his worst finish since he tied for 30th in the British Open last summer, and his 72 in the third round ended his streak of 27 consecutive rounds under par.
Not to be overlooked is McIlroy, who lost in a playoff at the South African Open despite coping with injured ribs that knocked him out of two tournaments in the Middle East that he typically plays well. McIlroy hopes to return in two weeks in Mexico City.
Day lost the No. 1 ranking for the first time in 47 weeks, though he could get that back in Mexico City, the first World Golf Championships event of the year.
The Australian has been a slow starter, at least by his standards, the last two years because of all the time he takes off in the winter. A year ago, he didn't contend until back-to-back victories in March. This year, he has finished a combined 35 shots behind in the three tournaments in which he made the cut.
The Florida Swing - it's more of a stutter step with the tour going to Mexico instead of Doral - has a tough act to follow.
For starters, none of the top six in the world will be at the Honda Classic this week in Palm Beach Gardens. The highest-ranked player is Scott, who can't move higher than his No. 7 spot in the ranking even if he were to successfully defend his title at PGA National.
Johnson is expected to play in Mexico, the Match Play and the Houston Open. Day will be in Mexico, Bay Hill and the Match Play. Spieth will be in Mexico, Innisbrook, the Match Play and most likely Houston. Throw in Matsuyama, McIlroy and Henrik Stenson, and there will be plenty of occasions for them to mix it up ahead of the Masters.
And then what happens at Augusta?
It has been 10 years since so many top players won on the West Coast - Vijay Singh (Kapalua), Tiger Woods (Torrey Pines), Phil Mickelson (Pebble Beach) and Stenson (Match Play) were all among the top eight in the world when they won. And it really didn't slow down after that, with Woods, Singh and Scott winning in March.
So much hype. So much anticipation.
And the green jacket that year went to Zach Johnson, the self-described normal guy from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
The Masters will get here soon enough.