Setting the stage for the Masters

The No. 1 golfer in the world, Rory McIlroy, won't play again until the Masters. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

DORAL, Fla. -- In 25 days, the first round of the Masters will begin at the Augusta National Golf Club. The WGC-Cadillac Championship marked the last time the top 50 players in the Official World Golf Ranking would be together before they all make the trip down Magnolia Lane on the first week of April. Over the next three weeks, some of these players will enter the fields at the Transitions, Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Invitational and the Shell Houston Open. But none of them will dare play four weeks in a row entering the week of the first major. Players such as Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer and Adam Scott won't play again until the Masters.

Sure, many of them will make a few reconnaissance missions to Augusta for refresher courses on the greens from some of the local caddies. Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Keegan Bradley were there on Tuesday, and apparently Phil relieved the youngsters of some of their discretionary funds.

McIlroy said on Sunday after finishing in third place at Doral that he would visit Augusta this Wednesday or Thursday.

Players covet the chance to see the immaculate Alister MacKenzie-designed course in the relative solemnity of February and March before the patrons and the TV trucks take over the grounds. But no amount of practice or play in tour events leading up to that week will fully prepare them for the almost surreal nature of the place. Even high definition and 3-D TV fail to do justice to the hills on the course and how the color of greens shines brightly over every other hue.

So we had Doral as a kind of last spring training game before the rosters are set and the teams pack up for points north.

The Blue Monster isn't Augusta National and no amount of work by its new designer, Gil Hanse, will ever make it anything more than a great resort course. But for more than 50 years it's been a destination for the best players in the world. As much as some of the players complained this past week about how Doral was out of date and in need of a drastic makeover, which it will get after the 2013 event, the cream had risen to the top by Sunday afternoon.

The winner, Justin Rose, has won four times in the past 20 months. McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world, finished third. Bubba Watson, who took solo second, won twice in 2011. Bradley, who at one point early in the final round held the lead, won the 2011 PGA Championship and with a second at the Northern Trust Open this year has already surpassed his amazing rookie season. Steve Stricker and Matt Kuchar, two quiet top-10 machines and probable U.S. Ryder Cup teammates of Watson and Bradley, tied for eighth.

Five of the top 10 finishers at Augusta from 2011, including Charl Schwartzel, were in the top 11 this week at Doral. Last year at Doral, the South African had a tie for 24th.

The winner of the Masters will probably emerge from this group. But in a field this deep, it's difficult to stop with the players who finished in the top 11. It would be hard to bet against Hunter Mahan (T-24), Mickelson (T-43), or Tiger Woods if he is healthy.

All the stars were at Doral. That used to happen at Arnie's tournament at Bay Hill, but many of the top names no longer feel beholden to the King's legacy. Maybe they figure they can pay their respects to him a few weeks down the road at the Masters, where along with Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus he will hit a ceremonial first drive to start the tournament. Mickelson and Tiger are committed to play at Bay Hill, but none of the top five players are in the field.

So we had Doral as a kind of last spring training game before the rosters are set and the teams pack up for points north. This was the last chance for the players to stack their games up against their likely foes at Augusta. April 5 will be the putative first day of the majors season, and instead of palm trees in South Florida, there will be pine trees and azaleas on an Easter Sunday in a place called Amen Corner.

McIlroy is the best-looking prospect to conquer this holy land. The 22-year-old Ulsterman proved in his three U.S. warm-ups for the Masters that from now on you can almost take it for granted that he'll be on the leaderboard. His 12 under par on the weekend at Doral was a field best. He can take his game north in a few weeks with a level of assurance not seen much in today's game of parity.

Though Augusta will be only his fourth event of the year in the U.S. and just sixth overall, he's already been in every conceivable situation. For six matches at the Accenture Match Play he had to go head to head with one player under intense pressure. That could serve him well on the back nine at Augusta if he's in a duel with the likes of Bradley, Johnson or Mickelson.

At Honda, he won holding the lead and got to No. 1 in the world. Who can forget the 4-shot lead he blew last year at the Masters? And at Doral this week, he had to claw his way back in the tournament on the weekend after shooting a 1-over 73 in the first round. This most recent performance was a good lesson for him on how to keep fighting, no matter how insurmountable the odds.

A good many things will happen over the next three weeks in Tampa, Orlando and Houston. Players will carry momentum from those events into the Masters. A new flavor of the month could emerge to replace McIlroy. Still, the best scouting report came out of Doral, where the world got to see the best together one last time before the opening pitch.