Five burning questions as the 2024 Masters begins this week in Augusta

The first full week in April provides an alpha and omega moment in the world of games. The beginning and the end.

College basketball tournaments with their predictable unpredictability are wrapping up. Major League Baseball is just getting started. Pro basketball and hockey playoffs will come later. The Kentucky Derby looms in another month.

And there’s Augusta. The Masters. A universal symbol of spring.

All the sports world will focus this week on the 88th playing of the year’s first major golf championship, and there are so many factors to anticipate, so many topics ripe for speculation and so much tradition to appreciate before the first shot is struck on Thursday.

Is there peace in our time between the pro golf factions? Can this annual rite of spring curb the plunge in TV ratings for pro golf tournaments? Do fans really care where players compete? Can players ...? So many questions. So few answers.

Look at a few of the topics that will be in the spotlight at Augusta National:

Can expectations become reality?

OK, the Masters requires no embroidery. No matter what the circumstances, the tournament is a monument to excellence and provides memories to cherish.

But the golf world has been lamenting tournaments without all the best players in the world competing against each other, and this Masters provides just that.

A handful of LIV golfers will join the PGA Tour cadre and ... what? Questions, of course. Can the performance match the hype? Can a Koepke vs. McIlroy duel emerge? Mickelson or Rahm or Smith vs. Scheffler or Spieth or Clark or Schauffele?

That’s what the golf world wants, isn’t it? But the plots can’t be contrived; they must evolve.

Still, the waiting and anticipation will be delicious.

Another major title for Jon Rahm?

Augusta National loves its champions, and Rahm took a place among the most popular with this triumph in the 2023 Masters. That will never change, but he returns to defend his title mostly out of the spotlight, thanks to his move to the LIV competition.

He arrives playing well — four top-10 finishes in LIV events prior to the weekend’s tournament in Miami. He has placed no worse than a tie for ninth in his last seven outing worldwide.

On the other hand, he will be battling history. And nowhere is history stronger than Augusta National. Only three players — Jack Nicklaus in 1965-66, Nick Faldo in 1989-90 and Tiger Woods in 2001-02 — have won back-to-back Masters titles.

And there’s this statistic: Since 2017, Scottie Scheffler’s tie for 10th last year is the only defending champion to finish in the top 10 the following year. Three missed the cut.

Rahm faces that history. Then again, Rahm is Rahm.

Will Scheffler still be sizzling?

Some pundits have started to compare Scottie Scheffler’s achievement to those of Tiger Woods, which bring to mind a thought from Sparky Anderson: Don’t embarrass anyone by comparing him to Johnny Bench.

So, no Woods-Scheffler comparisons here. But Scheffler has been authoring some Woodsian performances with two wins and a second in his last three starts. He is firmly atop the world golf rankings, and his streak of consecutive tournament rounds under par finally ended at 28 in Houston the other day with a pedestrian, for him, even-par score.

His tee-to-green skills have never been questioned, and his newfound success with the putter has given him the aura of invincibility. History reveals the Masters champion almost always ranks among the leaders in greens in regulation, and guess who leads the PGA Tour in that category? Yeah, Scottie.

Is he ready to add another Masters green jacket to his collection of championships? The oddsmakers sure think so.

Wither Tiger? Wither Rory?

Probably the most familiar names in golf and among the very few who “move the needle” in the game can be lumped together for this question: Can they make history?

All eyes will be on Tiger Woods, even though he is in the September of his competitive years. He can set the record for consecutive made cuts at the Masters this year, but the question not long ago centered on if he would even tee up this April.

Injuries and surgeries have taken their toll, but he remains a magnet — the player the fans want to see. Odds are against his turning back the calendar to his out of-nowhere triumph in 2019; nevertheless, all eyes will be on him.

And Rory McIlroy? Yes, once more, he comes to Augusta National needing a Masters victory to secure the career Grand Slam. A decade has passed since his last triumph in a major. He has not really threatened to win a green jacket in a while; indeed, he missed the cut a year ago.

He’s changed his pre-tournament plans, saying he will not arrive until Tuesday. Will that alter his performance?

Will changes to No. 2 make a difference?

Augusta National’s par-5 second hole almost always is the easiest on the course during the Masters. To increase the challenge, tournament officials moved the tee back 10 yards and to the left.

The distance — the hole is now listed at 585 yards on the scorecard — should not bother the players. Even the shorter hitters can reach the green or the front bunker with their second shot, albeit with a longer club.

But shifting the tee increases the dogleg just a bit, and the impact on drives might be worth watching.

The tee shot now will be more from right to left, and a player will need to guard against turning the ball too much and tangling with the trees. Will the change cause players to ponder or continue to play bombs away?

And ...

Wonder if the 13th hole, lengthened for the 2023 Masters, will be more challenging. Ponder why the tee shot on the par-3 12th creates such a riddle. Think about course’s length and consider the chances a so-called short-hitter can win.

Ludvig Aberg will try to defy the history that players in their first Masters can’t win and Rickie Fowler will be searching again for a major title and . . . on and on.

So many questions. So few answers. Whatever, excitement is in the air, and that’s the beauty of the Masters.

TV coverage of the Masters

  • Thursday: 3-7:30 pm (ESPN)

  • Friday: 3-7:30 pm (ESPN)

  • Saturday: 3-7 pm (CBS)

  • Sunday: 2-7 pm (CBS)

Streaming at starts mid- to late mornings daily