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Masters will be chock-full of contenders

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The Big Three is no clever moniker, but it does have meaning as it relates to golf. And there's been an understandable push to try to corral the game's best players of today into a neat little triumvirate as well, although doing so does little justice to the original group.

Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player made up the special threesome, a marketing gimmick that turned into reality. They dominated the scene for years (apologies to Billy Casper), especially at the Masters, where they combined to win eight of nine green jackets from 1958 to 1966.

But the effort in 2016 to make Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy into a modern version falls short -- and not just because they are all represented by different management companies, unlike Arnie, Jack and Gary in the day. That union was as much about their marketing might as it was any on-course rivalry.

To squeeze those modern superstars into a tidy package ignores two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson. Or emerging star Rickie Fowler. What about Adam Scott, who has won twice this year? Or Henrik Stenson, who keeps knocking on the door?

And don't forget about Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson and Hideki Matsuyama and Justin Rose and Patrick Reed and Zach Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.

As the 80th Masters begins Thursday at Augusta National, golf has transitioned from the domination of Tiger Woods to an era of young, hotshot stars who've already tasted considerable success, but in no way have an easy path to greatness.

"I think this year's Masters might be the hardest one to win in quite a while as far as depth of the field and the quality of golf being played by people who play Augusta National very well,'' said defending champion Spieth. "You can see these kind of trends. Rory has played Augusta National very well, and he's playing strong golf this year. He wants it very, very badly. We all know that. Everybody wants it badly.

"There's a bunch of guys who love the tournament and the course who are playing great golf. You kind of always see a little bit of that, but I think it's widespread this year.''

Day comes into the Masters having won his past two starts. Schwartzel won last month at the Valspar Championship. Prior to that, Scott won two in a row in Florida. Watson won at Riviera, Fowler in Abu Dhabi. Spieth's victory at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions seems long ago, and he comes into the Masters without a top-10 in a stroke-play event since January.

Still, we're talking about the guy who has finished second and first in his only two Masters and has yet to shoot over par at Augusta National.

"I think we're all very reactive at times to just whatever happens today, and that's it,'' said Scott, who won the 2013 Masters. "It's really hard to play golf consistently well for long periods of time, and there are three, four very clear standouts who I think have played the best over the last 12 months, but there's no clear separation in my mind.

"In the big picture of things certainly over that 12 months, yes, and they're clearly the best players right now, but to not even discuss a Bubba Watson for winning golf tournaments is unbelievable, and again, he's finished first and second [at Riviera and then Doral], and there's a whole string of players that can put it together any given week.''

Another way to look at it is by world rankings points earned in 2016, and Scott leads that list, followed by Day, Fowler, Watson and Brandt Snedeker, who won the Farmers Insurance Open. Spieth is next, followed by Masters rookie Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Louis Oosthuizen, Stenson, Schwartzel, McIlroy and Mickelson.

Day, who won the most recent major championship at the PGA in August and captured five tournament titles in 2015, got off to a slow start this year before victories at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and WGC-Dell Match Play. That moved the Aussie ahead of Spieth to become No. 1 in the world.

And throw in the fact that Day was second in his first Masters in 2011 and third in 2013, and the Aussie has shot to the top of many lists of contenders.

"To be honest, I don't think I'm the favorite this week,'' Day said. "As you know, there are a lot of people out there that can play well this week and win. Jordan and Rory and Henrik, how he's been playing lately, and even Phil is a favorite here.

"There are so many players who can win around here, and there's not just one heavy favorite this week, which is fantastic. I think it's good for the game of golf and I think it's good for this tournament as well.''

McIlroy is the only player among the top five in the world without a victory in 2016, but he did win his final tournament of the 2015 European Tour season.

And in 13 PGA Tour weeks this season, eight times a major champion has won, including five former Masters winners.

But that doesn't always mean much. Last year, only one previous major winner (Padraig Harrington) won leading up to the Masters.

Does it matter?

"It doesn't surprise me when any individual has won one,'' Zach Johnson said. "It doesn't surprise me when anybody wins out here, they are all good. I wouldn't read too much into it personally.''

Perhaps we shouldn't. Maybe it is best to sit back and watch it all unfold. The Masters has a way of holding our attention, regardless.